It was a horribly mundane way for such an otherworldly figure to vanish from public view. While performing at a festival in Scheeßel, Germany, on 25 June 2004, David Bowie began to experience pains in his arm and shoulder.
What the singer thought was a trapped nerve turned out to be an acutely blocked artery requiring emergency angioplasty. What was dismaying was not so much that this beloved figure – the totem for generations of social, sexual and psychic outsiders – could fall so seriously ill but that Bowie could be human at all.
His subsequent disappearance from live performance has since evolved into one of the most fascinating vanishing acts in pop music. Bowie has not toured since his illness – his final performance to date was a three-song set at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in 2006 – and, predictably, conjecture has filled the vacuum of absence. Depending on who you listened to Bowie was either dying of lung cancer or he was healthy and happily watching SpongeBob SquarePants at home with Alexandria, his young daughter, and wife, the model Iman. There was simply no way to know.
Unsurprisingly, Bowie managed to parlay this enforced sabbatical into a uniquely effective career move. His stock rose hugely while he was away, turning anything he did into an event in its own right. The unexpected release of Where Are We Now? – his first new song in a decade, on his 66th birthday on 8 January 2013 – was such a surprise that reportedly even Bowie’s own PRs had not heard it until they were called upon to write a press release in the small hours of that very morning. Bowie has created a world where, just as in his 1970s pomp, everything he does is a news story. The exhaustive retrospective exhibition that followed, David Bowie Is …, at the V&A burnished his reputation further.
Now on Friday, the day he turns 69 comes Blackstar, his 26th album, which is as startling as anything he has done,taking in hip hop, Brechtian theatre and abstract jazz.
“The layoff was a necessity that he turned into a benefit; it became part of the Bowie mystique,” says Paul Trynka, author of the acclaimed Bowie biography Starman and a former editor of Mojo magazine. “I actually think he’d been privately longing to go away for some time. Julian Temple [who directed Bowie in the movie Absolute Beginners] told me that even in the 80s Bowie wanted to perform a magnificent disappearing act – a magician’s trick. The heart attack forced that upon him, but it completely changed his fortunes. By not being as needy as the average pop star, that puts you on a hell of a pedestal.”
Bowie has plenty of past to escape. Born in Brixton in 1947 and raised in suburban Bromley – the son of waitress Peggy and nightclub owner turned Dr Barnardo’s promotions officer Haywood Jones – young David Jones attempted to insert himself into every one of post-rock’n’roll Britain’s ever-changing scenes before succeeding on his own terms. In today’s parlance, he was a try-hard. He adopted and discarded styles, musicians, managers and lovers with regularity.
When he finally broke through in 1972, it was as the shock-haired, rail-thin, androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, who remade rock’n’roll for the era. Henceforth pop would become a rallying point for the weird and the marginalised, a permanent outrage and – especially – succour to young people whose sexuality did not conform.
As Bowie discarded Ziggy for a succession of personae – the cadaverous, cocaine-addled soul boy of Young Americans, the austere European man-machine of his trilogy of Berlin albums – it became a cliche to describe him as a chameleon of pop. But this was to miss the point.
“The idea that he puts on a mask simply to market what he’s done is mistaken,” says Trynka. “Actually, he creates the mask in order to make the art. A chameleon changes to mimic its background. Bowie forces the background to change to mimic him. His great achievement is not to market himself with a persona, it’s to create a persona with which to make art.”
His most globally successful album, 1983’s Let’s Dance, appeared to expose the “real” David Bowie, but it left Bowie the artist with nowhere to go. He subsequently fell into a steep creative decline. Whether trying to court an audience with the gauche stadium noise of Never Let Me Down or provoke it with his garage band Tin Machine, nothing seemed to work.
“All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience,” Bowie admitted to Paul du Noyer of The Word magazine in 2003, in one of his last interviews before disappearing. “My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.”
The Bowie that Du Noyer met had largely repaired his reputation with a landmark performance at Glastonbury in 2000 and a series of well-received albums. He was also well into his life as health-conscious New York homebody, rising at 6.30am, boxing three times a week and warding off cigarette pangs with minty herbal toothpicks. He talked of writing a novel about female trade unionists in the 1890s and of his love for his young daughter. “It’s not that work doesn’t seem a priority, but it puts it in perspective,” Bowie told Du Noyer, adding with ironic foresight, “You realise that working in front of a crowd is not a life-threatening situation.”
“He was as charming and polite as the best stage Englishman you could ever hope to meet in New York,” Du Noyer recalls. “The tragedy of David Bowie is that he’s spent his life adopting personae with the result that nobody quite believes him when he tries to do normal. Nowadays he might be every bit as ordinary as he wants us to think he is.”
His collaborators observe an impenetrable omertà backed up by strict non-disclosure agreements. This can be painful. “I was on the cover of the Christmas issue of Guitar Player magazine,” the long-time Bowie guitarist Earl Slick told Alexis Petridis in January 2013. “I’m making a new Bowie album and I can’t tell them anything.”
Even Bowie’s finest producer, Tony Visconti, who returned for The Next Day and Blackstar, works on a need-to-know basis. “Whenever he calls me it’s always a surprise because there’s no leading up to it, there’s no hint,” he told Mojo magazine this month. “It’s just ‘I’m ready’.”
Which leaves us with only the music to go on. “There’s usually an inexorable drift to the centre as time goes on,” says Du Noyer. “Bob Dylan makes Christmas albums nowadays. Not so David Bowie. He’s rediscovered his gift for strangeness.”
In an overmediated time where social media robs everything of its mystery, Bowie’s obstinate refusal to play along is almost a work of art in itself. Sphinx-like, he may infuriate. But at least he’s consistent. “When I’m really famous,” he told a colleague in the 1960s, when the notion of young Davey Jones as a star of any importance seemed absurd, “I’m not going to talk to anyone. Not even the band.” Today, he is as good as his word.
David Bowie: fact file
Born: David Robert Jones, 8 January 1947 in Brixton
Career: Studied art and design at Bromley Technical high school (“a complete exhibitionist,” said his fifth year report. “If he were capable of continuous effort his ability would have been put to better use.”) Trainee commercial artist at advertising agency Nevin D Hirst in New Bond Street. Subsequently full-time musician, actor, dancer and househusband.
High point: Creating the single Heroes with Brian Eno in 1977. Inspired by the sight of producer Tony Visconti kissing his German girlfriend Antonia Maass by the Berlin Wall, the song became an anthem of individual freedom. Bowie performed the song at the wall in 1987: “We heard that a few East Berliners might get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realise in what numbers,” he recalled. “It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears.” He would later play the song at Paul McCartney’s post-9/11 Concert for New York in 2001.
Low point: A toe-curling version of Martha & The Vandellas’ Dancing in the Street, recorded with Mick Jagger for Live Aid. “The band started playing it and it sounded fucking awful,” lamented the record producer Alan Winstanley to Bowie biographer David Buckley. “I had my head in my hands thinking what the fuck is this?”
What he says: “The source of all my frustrations is hammering away at the same questions I’ve had since I was 19, this daunting spiritual search,” he told The Word magazine in 2003. “They’re continual questions and they seem to be the essence of what I’ve written over time. And I’m not going to stop.”
What they say: “Without David Bowie, popular music as we know it pretty much wouldn’t exist.” – Moby.
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