Starman returns: The perfect re-emergence of David Bowie
Reviewed: "David Bowie Is…” at the V&A.
As I walked through the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A on its opening night – oblivious to the great, the good and the overly cantilevered around me – I came across something I’d never seen before. Like almost everyone else at the show, I like to consider myself an expert on all matters Bowie but this was something that had never crossed my desk, so to speak: an appearance by Dave on Saturday Night Live in 1979, performing “The Man Who Sold the World” in a ridiculously oversized suit, along with the experimental singer Klaus Nomi.
I was immediately mesmerised and watched it three times before moving into the next room, to be confronted by hundreds of even more esoteric Bowie moments. There was a dinner after the private view but like everyone else I talked to that night, I just wanted to go around the exhibition again and again, wallowing in my youth. (The denouement of the dinner was Tilda Swinton’s speech, in which she said that Bowie had told her that when “Where Are We Now?” was released, he had finally got more press than the man who shares his birthday, Elvis.)
I’ve been to all the rock’n’roll museums around the world, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York, the Grammy Museum in LA and the British Music Experience in the O2 in Greenwich (the tent in Kent), and this makes them all look like poor Madame Tussauds knock-offs. Who wants to see Johnny Cash’s cowboy boots, Chuck Berry’s waistcoat or a flight bag supposedly once used by Jimi Hendrix, when you can immerse yourself in not just David Bowie’s entire ouevre but also pretty much everything that contributed to it?
As the curators have said themselves, Bowie was a search engine before there were search engines. (The only thing I saw of any interest at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a urinal that was installed in CBGB’s in 1975 and that was probably used by everyone from Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine to Iggy Pop and Joey Ramone. It was situated just outside the gents.)
There has been such a lot of hyperbole surrounding the V&A show that I assumed it couldn’t live up to expectations. Yet it is as clever and as immersive as the “Postmodernism” show they held a couple of years ago. It is a proper multimedia extravaganza, and for Bowie obsessives like myself is probably the final word on the man (in a good way). Its title, “David Bowie Is . . .” also manages to make sense of his fair-to-middling middle period, from Never Let Me Down through to The Buddha of Suburbia, when our Dave was struggling to come to terms with global success and had started trying to make records that “sounded like David Bowie”.
What a difference a vacuum makes. In the ten years he has been away – recovering from heart attacks, lying low in Manhattan and Woodstock and, according to every gossip columnist/journalist/“friend”/Bowie expert /jealous contemporary from Brixton to Beijing, dying of everything from leukaemia to emphysema – the cult of Dave has grown and grown, while his silence has almost become a piece of performance art in itself. Harvey Goldsmith says that Bowie is the only artist he has ever worked with who has an internal alarm clock – “His timing is perfect, and he knows exactly when to go, exactly when to stop” – and his decision to launch The Next Day, his first album for a decade, on the back of the V&A show is exactly that, a decision.
A friend of mine had dinner with Bowie in New York just over two years ago and at that point he said he wasn’t “feeling the music”, wasn’t in the mood to record again. But as his health improved, and as his inertia became debilitating, so he started writing lyrics and recording again. The V&A show assisted in his re-emergence, as did the small mountain of books, magazine covers and newspaper articles that have appeared since his disappearance.
So, is The Next Day any good? It has been hilarious to watch a bunch of fifty- and sixty-something men who should know better treat the record as though it were a new wheel or the missing testament. Great though this record is – and it’s already the best album you’re going to hear all year – if it had been released in 2005, those selfsame critics would have probably just said it was another fair-tomiddling David Bowie record.
Personally, I love it, and as I pointed out on Twitter a few weeks ago, with this album Bowie has seemingly reinvented the art of the middle-eight, meaning he obviously had a huge surfeit of tunes and wanted to squeeze them in somewhere.
Yes, he could have made more of a statement if he had made a record with only eight songs on it, or he could have produced an album of songs that all sounded like “Where Are We Now?”, but in the end he opted for the route-one approach: that is, releasing an album of orthodox if varied Bowie songs, including two – “Where Are We Now?” and “The Stars” (Are Out Tonight)” – that are so damn good they should be included on any greatest hits albums of the future. And not just David Bowie’s.
“The Next Day” is on sale now. “When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes that Shook the World” by Dylan Jones is published by Preface (£20). “David Bowie Is…” is at the V&A, London SW7 until 11 August