Loving the alien: Trust David Bowie dream up OAP chic
THE T-shirt was the giveaway, I reckon. Song of Norway it read; serifed white lettering on classy royal blue. Now, I have nothing against Norway; indeed, the bottle of Carlsberg for which in Oslo I was once charged £13 was exemplary.
But come on…you don’t spend years being David Bowie – intergalactic fruitbat; style icon; the only rock star to have pulled off that tricky combo of feather-cut and cocktail dress – you don’t spend your life being that guy, disappear, spend a decade in career deep-freeze, return then flaunt in your new video leisurewear lauding the world’s second-most successful economy; you don’t do all that and be surprised when people ask: “Why does your T-shirt mention Norway?”. Or was that just me? Did no one else notice? Do I think too deeply about David Bowie?
No. You can’t think too deeply about David Bowie. This is the man who, on Hang Onto Yourself, penned the lyric: “She wants my honey not my money, she’s a funky-thigh collector”. He is, quite clearly, the Messiah. As this happy few days has just demonstrated; a week in which the world conjoined in the project of thinking deeply about David Bowie all the time. And each of them thinking the same thought: oh, he doesn’t look well, does he? Seldom can a glorious return have been qualified so much by the assumption that its subject will be off again pretty shortly.
“Is David Bowie at Death’s Door?” pondered the Daily Mirror, tactfully. Vile, of course, though merely an extreme expression of the shiver that’s run down the spine of many fans in the past decade, fostering the supposition that Bowie’s next sartorial flourish would involve a winding-sheet, perhaps featuring a lightning flash. Ever since he underwent an angioplasty in 2003, the taxi-meter has been ticking. “Is David Bowie saying goodbye?” wondered the reliably dim Tony Parsons, offering also the carefully tallied intelligence that Bowie has had “more cigarettes than hot dinners”.
The editor of one of those porn mags for middle-aged rock bores told me in confidence that Bowie had cancer of the liver and, so to speak, was returning with all haste his library books. The same guy claimed The Flaming Lips were worth a listen so, clearly in retrospect, he wasn’t to be trusted. But rumour swirled anyway, ceaselessly. Whenever we gathered, myself and Bowieheads chums became like WRVS visitors to a cottage hospital, hands on laps, clutching metaphorical bags of Mint Imperials, fretting over each new scrap of rumour and hearsay, like the 45-year-old teenyboppers we were.
And then, in the time it takes a kimono to fragment, it was ended. Bowie – our lovely David, glorious, gorgeous, super-cool David, who had never done anything badly except the entire 1980s – was back. But back with what? Well, with an episode of Sooty and Sweep, it appeared. In an artist’s cluttered studio a pair of toy bears were perched atop an old leather suitcase, their faces represented by ovals cut in a whiteboard, on to which grainy footage of Berlin is projected. In the ovals were the faces of Bowie, with the “permanently anxious eyes of the elderly Duke of Windsor,” as one critic put it, and a woman, not as the world’s media chirruped the Icelandic singer Björk but Jacqueline Humphries, artist and wife of Tony Oursler, who directed the film. The footage cut and jumped: from the Bösebrücke to the Brandenburg Gate; from the Dschungel nightclub to the apartment in which Bowie lived when making Low and Heroes.
The song, Where Are We Now?, was stately and careful of its own step, like someone undergoing physiotherapy. The lyrics were more reflectively melancholic yet, a haiku on a yellowing postcard, sketching a tentative reacquaintance with Berlin in which “fingers are crossed/just in case”. Bowie’s baritone once came from the backs of his heels; here it is thin and cautious. Which is fair enough. Few men of Bowie’s age can still make the rafters shake. Tom Jones, perhaps. Brian Blessed. After several plays the song becomes impossibly moving. You realise, however, that you cannot hear it objectively, any more you can those records The Beatles made with a tape of John Lennon or Closer by Joy Division, released after the death of Ian Curtis. The Grim Reaper is at the mixing desk. We are in the presence of something more meaningful, something more gravid than mere pop music.
But are we? Is Bowie really any closer to a peacock-feathered tomb than he was a decade back? I beg leave to do that dismissive, lipstick-smudging thing he did in the video for Boys Keep Swinging. I’m not suggesting Bowie hasn’t been unwell; he plainly has. At the same time, he’s had also a long history of transmuting, in his own outlandish way, actuality into creativity. Each of the chameleonic identities we associate with Bowie has been some kind of twist on a biographical reality.
Think of the Pierrot costume he adopted for Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), revealed subsequently to have been an oblique comment on the outrageous demands of his management company. Think of the Veronica Lake languor of Hunky Dory, taken on as Bowie prepared to reveal his as-you-like-it sexuality. Think of Ziggy Stardust, the K-Tel compilation of all his influences, from pirates to aliens. Think of the sharp suits of Tin Machine, favoured just when rock started going corporate. Think of the boxer chic of Let’s Dance, when Bowie wished to be a chart contender again.
I fancy a similar process is at play with Bowie now. Consider the sheer perverse, superannuated (space) oddity of being a rock star in a garment that references Norway. We’re seeing simply his latest creation: frail Bowie, OAP Bowie, may-I-have-a-Werther’s Original Bowie: Ziggy Sanatogen, if you like. Once again, he is reflecting his real life, even as he refracts it out of all recognition. As ever, Bowie has been there, done it; and bought the T-shirt. «
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