During an interview to promote his 2002 album Heathen, David Bowie remarked: “As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three: how long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” Some 11 years later and that still seems the perfect way to view the man’s career – and what a career.
Often with music legends, there is little benefit from trawling back over their best hits, because it all becomes gushing and meaningless. Somehow we all know that Bowie is one of England’s greatest exports, yet he has never quite attained the universal adulation of a band such as The Beatles.
But in order to work out why this is, just give a listen to Where Are We Now?, his surprise new single. Eerily thematically similar to his comments from a decade ago, pianos twinkle and drums brush by. Let’s not get carried away – it is not a masterpiece. But it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts in the context of the man who wrote it. A self-proclaimed isolated man who writes about feeling abandoned, his early preoccupation about other worlds with songs like Life On Mars? and Space Oddity show this imbedded feeling of being the outsider.
Though a megastar in the 1970s, looking back, Bowie might have easily become a parody of himself (he nearly did by the early 1990s). Branding yourself as Ziggy Stardust and singing about space adventure only works when you are a songwriting genius.
He further matured with the albums he made with Brian Eno in Berlin. Heroes stands as one of the most life-affirming songs ever written and helped him break away from the image that made him, but had begun to suffocate his creativity.
As the subject of media attention, David Bowie has ticked all the boxes: cocaine addiction, a failed marriage, and creative blocks – yet somehow, as he emerges once again, he effortlessly commands the utmost respect.
The obvious thing to do now would be to compare his mastery of music with the banality of X Factor or One Direction, but to do so misses the point. Bowie has grown in our hearts as gracefully as his music first won us over, to the point that in absence, everyone misses him dearly. The overwhelming response to the news that he recorded a whole album, The Next Day, in secret, is testament to that.
Bowie is an artist who, while controversial, has never been a villain. Where Lennon and McCartney have their detractors, in life and in death, Bowie exists as Ziggy and David, in fiction and in fact. It’s the very fact of his continued existence, and the elegance of his maturing understatement, that have ensured he continues to mean the world to many. His artistry and words seem ever more personal. Perhaps the beauty of our relationship with him is that it feels like such a god-awful small affair.