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David Bowie: The eternal space oddity

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power?

This article was written in January 2013, in response to the release of Where Are We Now​?

Apart from a charity gig six years ago, sightings of David Bowie in the past decade have largely been paparazzi shots: a thin, white duke drifting from school gate to home in Manhattan, content with the demands of fatherhood following heart surgery in 2004. Industry friends of mine were asked to write his obituary five years ago. So it was exciting to see the searchlight swing round when, out of nowhere, he announced his first album in ten years and released a single (“Where Are We Now?”), on his 66th birthday, in advance of a huge retrospective opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in March.

For a magical moment on the morning of 8 January, the music industry is saved. Charts matter again (emails are pouring in from William Hill); there’s proof that you can keep secrets from the internet; the eternal mysteries of pop are restored as that shaky but unmistakeable voice breaks through YouTube, like Gandalf back from the dead.

Why does Bowie still hold such mythical power? Is it because he retired for a decade, ramping up the expectations? Nothing keeps you safer from criticism in the music industry than hardly releasing any music – Kate Bush will testify to that. Or is it because he’s always been “ahead of the game”? To be fair, he’s not (musically) these days, nor is he pretending to be.

“Where Are We Now?”, produced by Bowie’s long-time wingman Tony Visconti, is a luxuriantly self-reflexive song, reminiscent, with its elegiac chord sequence, of “Thursday’s Child” from the 1999 album Hours . . . (which also saw him boldly alluding to much of his previous work). He’s been chewing over mortality on his past two albums, with songs such as “Afraid” and the ironic “Never Get Old”. It’s obvious why. The new single is a sombre walk around his beloved Berlin, communing with ghosts.

If you want witty, equivocal poetry about middle age, listen to Nick Lowe or Chris Difford. Bowie is getting older reluctantly, fearfully, far away from his audience – and for his audience, this is a very powerful thing. The first line he’s spoken in years, “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz . . .” is a call out to the class of ’77, sending them right back to those heady times, alone. Musically unremarkable though it may be, “Where Are We Now?” activates two of the most potent things about popular music: nostalgia and the contemplation of darkness.

A good friend of mine, who gets the whole Bowie thing much better than I will ever do, suggested the other day, “He’s never got over the crushing disappointment of learning the world isn’t as magical as the one he perceived when he was a child.” His playfulness isn’t all gone, though. In the new video, with his face projected on to a puppet made of old socks by the artist Tony Oursler, he looks a bit like Avid Merrion’s “Bear”.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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