Do you know these men? Andrew Lahde and Colonel Millard Peck

I’m posting this here in the hope that someone has information on a couple of cold trails. I’ve been looking for more than a year, but they’ve disappeared off the face of the Earth. So here goes: one last attempt to track these guys down before I press send.

I’m desperately trying to find/contact vanished US ex-hedge fund boss Andrew Lahde & ex-US Army Col Millard ‘Mike’ Peck (he headed the Washington DC office in charge of locating and repatriating missing Vietnam vets through the 1980s) for a feature/book chapter deadline.

Any and all leads/contacts/current location/employer/associates/status clues appreciated… And please mention to any contacts who might know. Thanks! #JournoRequest

1,217 words for absence

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Lena is a close friend. She’s been my friend for more than 20 years now, so I’m lucky. She’s a beautiful, playful, kind, lovably geeky girl/woman – from Uganda by way of North London’s Jubilee line Big Yellow Storage hinterlands, then Gloucestershire, Cambridge and the Big Smoke.

 

We were flatmates for years – the years of back-to-mines and shared laundry runs. Lena married Rich, another of my closest friends – they have a marriage that’s loving and occasionally complex, just like all the best ones – and our close-knit little group, with Lena at the centre, has shared too many nights out to remember. (On one, she developed an obsession with a trance club’s crowd-roaming bongo player, and kept following him through the crowd like a duckling after its mum. ‘Bongo Man’ is our codeword for getting too wrapped up in something, work, whatever. Which, being Lena, happens often.)

 

What you really need to know, though, the key in a way to understanding everything else about Lena, is that so much about her is hugely, winningly incongruous. She’s a fearsomely intelligent polymath without an ego; the sociable introvert who holds our group together; a source of support and advice who carries her own sadnesses patiently; a Russian-, French-, Italian-speaking, law-firm partnering, multi-instrumentalist whose nature is to look up to people, and who seems genuinely baffled by her life’s big puzzle, which is of course that the rest of us love her so deeply. Her learning sits so lightly on her as to be invisible if that’s what she wants; and she wears her reading glasses with the same slightly amused elegance with which she sports her hangovers. I’ll tell you more about her in a minute. You’ll like her a lot.

 

But what I want to tell you first was how it went the day we buried her. Or at least, how it went for me.

 

As the days pass it sometimes seems as if I wasn’t properly there. (Did it even happen? I still catch myself pretending we just haven’t spoken for a couple of months. That Lena’s out there on the other side of town, waiting for the moment to pop up on my timeline.) But then come the joltingly clear memories.

 

The icy blue sunshine and high, painter’s clouds – refugees from the mountains who still haven’t got the hang of blending in among the towers and flats.

 

My last look up at the side of the spire, doing that falling-back thing it does as it soars away from you. At the streets, thinking how out of joint were all the vans and chattering teenagers and shopping mums. The darkness of the threshold. The church, huge, flooded with light, smelling churchy.

 

Then Lena’s family wandering into the church. They moved to all the right places, but looked like they’d lost their direction somewhere.

 

The light that fell across Lena’s mum, dad, brothers and sister. They nodded, and smiled, and sat, and fell silent. They sat across the aisle from the rest of us; her friends, her husband, her in-laws. I felt ashamed somehow, inappropriate: I couldn’t help them. The girl who had died was their daughter, their baby sister.

 

I couldn’t stop looking across at them. Their grief had her bemused, sad-laughing eyes, and a sort of patient, scholarly attentiveness that I’d seen in Lena a million times. Her sister moved her head with the same listening gesture. I remember thinking how their shoes were all polished. My shoes weren’t polished. I worried at it, tried to think of an injoke between Lena and me that would have justified my lapse, made it OK.

 

When I resurfaced, the church was full.

 

I found myself amazed at how many different Lenas we were burying.

 

All this time, I had known just one. Rich, her husband, knew another. Maya and Sema, her BFFs, each had their own, subtly different Lenas. But here was Lena the baby daughter, childhood classmate, little sister, boss, mentor, steadying family influence, benefactor. Those Lenas were all here, you could feel them filling the church, each with her own companion.

 

And for a moment I felt a strange euphoria, seeing my friend as if she were arriving, really becoming whole, instead of departing. All along, she’d been all this. To so many people. And each of us, even as we claimed her as our own, had merely borrowed a little bit of her for what felt, in the end, like the blinking of an eye.

 

So I tried to keep that in my head, but the vicar was talking. I couldn’t focus. I kept looking at my friends now; the ones who had known, more or less, the Lena I had. I wanted to speak with them about this feeling that we were all together in witnessing something extraordinary, the way you try and seek out others who witnessed the same event, saw the same gig. “You saw that too, right?”

 

Or: That was someone very special, wasn’t it?

 

Here were the university friends and acquaintances, too. Some I’d seen in the 20 years since we graduated, but not many, and not often. (I don’t know why, except there’s something in me, or there was at least, that doesn’t live well in the midst of groups and reunions. That fades with age too.) They were good people. I’d been really fond of them back then, in my spiky-young-man way, and I hadn’t seen them in decades. There we stood, smiling, or crying, or attentive, or stony-faced. Together.

 

Inside that church, now deep inside the service – with time slowed to an excruciating thick, dreamlike crawl and nowhere to look but up, down or across – I saw them all clearly for the first time. Not composed for upbeat hellos or wearing expressions of sympathy; not thinking about the clothes or the hairlines or the kids; but naked, and with all their years.

 

Two of my closest, Al and Fi, stood behind me. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear him moving his arm through hers, and her crying softly, just by my left shoulder-blade.

 

Lena’s best friends were speaking; Sema and Kofi read poems, then Maya began her eulogy. They were lightning conductors, drawing all the crackling and confused babble in our minds, the awful mix of emotions, and speaking them out again in a way that couldn’t hurt us. They took it on them, and they fought hard, and it helped.

 

To my surprise, I was ready for the grief, the helplessness and even the guilt. You feel them jostling and bumping into you, trying to get you to look at them. You feel them in your cheekbones and jaw, around your eyes, your chest, your clenched hand. But you are ready. You can stand, and you can fight them fair.

 

What I wasn’t prepared for – and today, looking back, it might even be the dominant note to the day – was an odd kind of tenderness for the people around me in that place. I remembered a story about Neil Armstrong. Standing on the moon, he had looked up and seen the Earth out there in space. For the rest of his life, the feeling never left him. It was of being overwhelmed with love for this tiny thing he suddenly saw as alone, fragile, and infinitely precious.

 

And because I was unprepared, it threw me, in a way that grief could not.

 

I tried not to look that feeling in the eyes, even tried to invite the grief back for a quick go. But that second thing kept creeping over me, in quietly booming waves.

 

It was waiting for me at the cemetery, as handfuls of earth were thrown over Lena, and a bright hailstorm flashed and was gone; it clung to my elbow in the cramped suburban community centre where the wake was held; it slouched at the bar in the dark cocktail club in Soho where the party ended up.

 

I looked at my contemporaries properly for the first time – not the first time that day, but the first time ever. The young women and men – boys and girls, really – I had known at college were all 40 now. They had changed the world in small ways, become notable, achieved what they said they would, or they had not; they had filled out, thinned and thickened.

 

Many had plateaued in the careers they’d dreamed about back then; more had found those careers weren’t for them; others, late bloomers, were still officially biding their time. Some wore the marks of family life, some of fulfilment, some the pristine glow of loneliness. They had suffered disappointments, and sometimes suffered successes more. They had children, divorces, lives, and they looked… Well, they looked beautiful.

 

The saplings don’t see it themselves as the forest grows around them, its slow accretions of bark and scratches transforming them over slow decades. But I saw it now, those same years, scratches, accretions on all of us.

 

The crooked trees were as beautiful as the straight, and the broken as beautiful as the unbroken. The ones I had been close to, the ones I’d hardly known, all stood together. We were together on that tiny, far-away Earth, and one less. How small the differences seemed.

 

As afternoon stretched into evening, the day took on a quiet glow. It ended with the usual sense of drift, the gently mounting sense that there were things to be done elsewhere. Things to be done: for Lena; for her family; for Rich, her husband – and for ourselves, and our families, and for all those we loved but hadn’t spoken with or seen or held in too long.

 

I remember thinking: “Lena will be OK from here.”

 

As if we were dropping her off at home, somewhere safe.

 

I tried, days later, in the stumbling way people try to say the most important thing on their minds, to articulate a strange feeling that comes in small moments amid the dreadful empty powerlessness and loss: that I was happy for Lena. I meant, because she went without knowing. Because she made us all feel like this, and that doesn’t just happen on its own. Because she’s kind, and good, and gone, but not gone at all. Because she is loved.

 

But words got in the way, as ever. And people looked at me and smiled, and said, “But she’s dead.” And I think I laughed at my foolishness, and muttered something about being a klutz. Lena is dead. And I miss her.

 

I’m not surprised I couldn’t explain, not really. These things have a habit of staying where they form, and going with us on whichever bit of our own journey is most private. And if there’s still a little part of each of our love for Lena that remains with us alone and can’t be told, that’s OK too.

 

Still, I thought for a long time about trying again. But it’s something I can’t quite grasp myself. Faint stars always vanish when you try and look at them directly. So I thought perhaps writing it down would help. But even now, after 1,217 words, I’m not sure I’m any closer.

 

New book for pre-order: ‘F*** You & Goodbye: The Dark, Moving & Often Hilarious History of the Resignation’

 

 

I’ve been waiting for this day. My new book of non-fiction is finally available on Amazon for pre-order as a print hardback. I’ve just signed off on the cover, and here it is. (Click to enlarge).

 

 

Titled F*** You & Goodbye: The Dark, Moving & Often Hilarious History of the Resignation, it’s out early next year, published in the UK by Constable & Robinson. Using resignations to trace the key stories, social developments and philosophies of the age, it takes in the Reformation, the American Civil War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of celebrity culture, and more. Here’s the publisher’s elevator pitch.

“History is written by the winners. It’s the survivors – the faithful servants, the insiders, the ones who stick around, who can adapt to almost any condition – who get to write the official histories. They publish the memoirs, park in the directors’ spots, erect the statues, form the new governments, wipe out the pockets of resistance, recruit the new starters, set the agendas, talk on the documentaries and retrospectives.

               Yet theirs – the official version – is never the whole story. There’s another side that we only glimpse through the cracks.

               The quitter’s tale offers a far more compelling, and often a more honest version of history. It’s full of self-deception, bloody knives, betrayal, honour, disgrace, disgust, thwarted ambition and shattered hopes, and sometimes a wicked sting in the tail…

              ‘F*** You & Goodbye’ includes famous – and not-so-famous – parting shots from famous resigners such as Richard Nixon, Steve Jobs, Roy Keane, Che Guevara, Wyatt Earp, Geoffrey Howe, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Peppiatt, Tony Blair, General Robert E. Lee, William Faulkner, Mikhail Bulgakov, George Orwell, Roy Edward Disney (Walt’s heir), King Edward VIII, Groucho Marx, John Profumo, Ruud Gullit, the Enron board, Dave Lee Travis, PResident Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Andrew Mitchell, Giles Coren and Charlie Sheen, and countless others.

            It examines the exit wounds they left, and how they changed the world we think we live in, the jobs we do, even who we are – leading the reader on a journey into modern society’s real heart of darkness.”

 

The book is the fruit of a 25-year obsession, and continues the theme of secret history – and the idea that the real story of our time is the one you glimpse between the cracks – from Outlaws Inc. It’s been fun writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it.

 

Order it early, and let me know by email, and send you a personal invite to the swish publisher’s launch party in London early next year.

 

 

The real reason I write: In praise of ‘threshold apprehension’

 

The cover for my next book arrived today. Any writer will tell you: the arrival of their new book’s cover is an exciting moment. Me, I’ve always found it a little bit poignant too.

 

Up to this point, it’s all about the making. There are routes to take; ways to turn things. The whole project exists in that glorious state of suspension where all things are possible. It’s crazy, but I always thought I knew pretty well how the pilot in that Roy Lichtenstein painting feels the instant before he pushes the button that makes the Blaaaaaaam! happen. (It always struck me as quite a peaceful, meditative picture for that reason. I understand I may well be alone in this.)

 

It’s elsewhere too. There’s a great Black Francis album called Bluefinger, all about the life of Dutch artist, rock star and heroin aficionado Herman Brood. It contains a song called ‘Threshold Apprehension’ that nails the feeling, the taste in your mouth, of being just about to nail something; the split second before the “Yessss!”. Threshold apprehension. (In the context of the album, I suspect it’s also about the feeling of a hit of smack, and the 9th-floor window Brood eventually jumped to his death from, but let’s stick with the eureka thing for a moment.)

 

It’s an obscure feeling, and you don’t hear it talked about much, but that’s only because (by definition) there’s nothing tangible you can show people. The Blaaaaaam! is what they see; only the pilot knows the heavenly chill that had him upside the temples the second before.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some Eeyore, saying that having done good work (insofar as I have done any) isn’t satisfying and wonderful and all. But being about to nail something great is The Drug.

 

It’s also the secret feeling. You’re alone with it. It’s the one result of the creative process you don’t get to talk about at awards ceremonies or on CVs, or see in the press, or exchange views on with your kids, or your mates. You’d sound like a freak. But you know it’s the fix that really keeps you in the game.

 

So that’s the feeling, from spark through pitch to publishers, tracking your story, bringing it to life, right the way through edits, then cover discussion and brief and feedback to the publishing house. And then…

 

Well, then there’s this… thing. A good thing. You love it. You brought it up, dammit. And it looks confident and it’s hanging out in shops and with the rough boys and girls on Amazon and in the press, and all you can do is wish it good luck out in the world, prepare yourself to explain it a few hundred times, and hope you gave it the toughness to handle itself out there. But it’s not yours any more, not really. Which is just fine, actually. And I mean, by this time you’re over the cover. You’ve seen it too much. You want to think about something else.

 

So you turn your attention to other things. Call people you haven’t seen for a while (you’ve been writing your book too many evenings lately). Get back to those things you love to read. Surf the net.

 

And that’s when the idea hits you. The idea… maybe even The Idea. Now this, this is exciting. You can almost taste it…

 

DOWNLOAD: Cool fabricator: The strange and beautiful case of Tom Kummer

Bad Boy Kummer: The poster for the inevitable biopic

In the course of researching my new book on resignations, I’ve been wading through a lot of parting shots from journalists.

 

Well, they have the public forum. Most of us pass through our careers without leaving a trace. We speak as representatives. We curtail our language. We stick to the script. This makes workplaces strangely preliterate, at least in terms of studying them. In the absence of personal testimony, we need to turn anthropologist.

 

It’s not like that with journalists. Everything they write is a personal testimony. Their/our careers are (often, at least) all footprint. And sometimes, the testifying is all there is.

 

So I’ve been wading through the last flare-outs of Jonah Lehrer, Johann Hari, Jayson Blair and others. And those cases reminded me of another that I’d known more than a decade before. This case never got quite the fame in the English-speaking world; but then, if it hadn’t been for our anglophone insularity, perhaps it could never have happened in the first place.

 

It’s the strange, strange story of a Swiss-German Hollywood reporter called Tom Kummer. He was Germany’s man on the inside throughout the 1990s. Nobody – not the LA Times, not Vanity Fair – could get the access he got; or get the stars to open up like him. He interviewed Brad Pitt about his bogies; Courtney Love about dinosaurs; Sharon Stone about post-structuralism. The world asked: how did he do it? What was his secret?

 

Well, you can guess. But there was a twist to Tom Kummer’s story that nobody saw coming. I wrote a feature about him in Jack magazine back in 2003. So I dug it out. Here it is.

 

It’s not perfect. But it sure is weird.

 

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WEEKEND FREEBIE: Stream a sample of the new Outlaws Inc. audiobook

 

Thanks to the lovely people at Audible.com in the States, you can stream an extract of the new Outlaws Inc. audiobook here, for a limited period.

 

The book is read – which, I suppose means I’m played – by Jeff Kafer, a Seattle-born voice actor and veteran narrator and voiceover artist. And he does a really great job with my mad sentences. I almost forgot it wasn’t me speaking with that West Coast drawl. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Stream by clicking the green ‘Play’ button here.

 

News: Film deal for Outlaws Inc.

 

Well, it’s happened. An 18-month film option on Outlaws Inc has been bought by a major Hollywood production company, Thunder Road Pictures. Thunder Road are the outfit behind big noises like The Expendables, Clash of the Titans (above) and Ben Affleck’s The Town, as well as the new Jeff Bridges/Julianne Moore blockbuster Seventh Son. Boss Basil Iwanyk is apparently Hollywood’s most bankable producer. So, er, blimey.

 

As things progress, I’ll be working on the project as Consultant Scriptwriter. So it’s all pretty exciting. And it’s thanks in large part to my agent, Humfrey Hunter, and film/TV rights agent, Rebecca Watson at Valerie Hoskins Associates. (See, I’m doing the Oscar Speech Thing already.) Rebecca is the lady who represents Fifty Shades Of Grey, so the studios seemed to take her calls for some reason.

 

Now, where will we get all the Russian planes for the movie, cheap? Oh hang on, I know just the people

 

New audiobook edition out now

Audible have just issued a new, unabridged audiobook of Outlaws Inc. It’s narrated by Seattle actor and voice artist Jeff Kafer, and while it’s potentially a little weird to have my voice suddenly become that of a West Coast American, let’s face it, it’s probably for the best. You know, all due apologies to Slough, Bucks and all that.

Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout linked to UK horsemeat scandal… And we’re, like, totally shocked

Looks like someone’s finally catching on. This is the network my book is about:

“#Horsemeat firms linked to Russian arms dealer #ViktorBout” http://t.co/e4xTQnls.

Rebel militias, high street retail giants, Somali pirates, fashion brands, Peruvian drug lords, our own government, ready-meal makers, all depend on some of the same shady people, but we all get it cheap so don’t ask too many questions & act shocked when you’re rumbled.

Meanwhile, subcontracting is what makes the world go round, from the UN to arms dealers, blood diamonds to NGOs, and Afghan heroin to food processing. And if some of that gets mixed up on the way? There are enough weak links to mean it’s not your proble.

“Paddy? What a fantastic death abyss!” Why the 1990s were David Bowie’s REAL creative hot streak

 

 

My revisionist piece on the David Bowie’s least-known (but most creatively rewarding) purple patch was published in Sabotage Times today, just as the world hailed his latest offering.

 

I argue that his lost years – Tin Machine, Black Tie White Noise, 1.Outside, Earthling, even The Buddha of Suburbia and his revelatory, manic turn on ‘The King Of Stamford Hill’ from Reeves Gabrels’ The Sacred Squall of Now – chart the progress of an artist pushing into new frontiers that even his best ’70s work could only foreshadow.

 

Controversial? Well, read the piece first. If any essay really needed to start with “WAIT, no please, just hear me out, hang on, WAIT A MINUTE…” this is probably the one. But please, do read it. I’d be interested to know what you think. Warning: Contains scenes of gratuitous (and actually, pretty magnificent) Tin Machine. Well, that’s my disclaimer. The piece is below. You can also read it over at Sabotage Times

——————————————————

 

Hallo Again, Spaceboy

Ziggy Stardust? The Thin White Duke? Major Tom? Sure, they’re OK if you like that sort of thing. But anyone looking for Bowie’s real creative hot streak should dig deep into the 1990s, and the singer’s ‘lost decade’…

 

So a new David Bowie single is released, and the world goes mad. Again.

 

If I sound a bit jaded, that’s because – like some Twilight Zone clairvoyant who sees the future repeated over and over again and wishes he could change it – I know every single, horrible little detail of what comes next.

 

The album. The retrospectives. The interviews. The Culture Show. And all of it a slow-motion prelude to the inevitable crash, the reviews. I’ve seen them all, with their endlessly repeated punchline. This year, once again, the world’s combined bright sparks will declare a new Bowie product to be The Best Thing He’s Done Since Scary Monsters.

 

Honestly, it’s not the line I mind. It’s the whole idiot orthodoxy that ‘70s Bowie is a good thing, followed by one 33-year-long parade of duds, duets, drum’n’bass and dotage. Like all orthodoxy, it gets handed down complete: you know what to say without ever needing to go back and listen to the music itself. It’s easy. But it’s also a lie. And it’s one that deprives the world of the chance to encounter some of the man’s very best work.

 

This matters. With Bowie now 66, and the prospect of another run of amazing albums receding, his legacy is confined to what he produced in the 1970s. Yet even now, there are half a dozen albums that belong in that canon. Albums that should be heard; that stand with, or even above, his most famous work. And albums that change our understanding of his career. Because David Bowie’s most creative, unexpected, maverick and artistically satisfying hot streak of all came not amid the glare of ’70s superstardom, but when he set a course right off the map – and away from the charts – in the 1990s.

 

Hear me out. Of course – of course Bowie’s ‘70s was phenomenal: a manic run of 15 albums in a decade that, even if they weren’t all great – stand up Pinups, David Live, Stage and Peter & The Wolf – stand as some sort of record-breaking testament to artistic confidence and sheer stylistic chutzpah.

 

But Bowie in the 1990s was different. His output between 1989 and 1999 is the sound of a decade-long writer’s block being blown to smithereens, and with a manic, questing, sulphurous joy that all the deeper and more genuine for that nobody, least of all Bowie, could take his gift for granted any more. This was Bowie discovering a whole new set of frontiers by going further than he’d gone before.

 

The problem was, nobody could see it at the time. The spectre of David Bowie, rock aristocrat dancing in the streets with Mick Jagger or crooning in a tux at Tina Turner was still too fresh for us to take his volte-face seriously. When he turned round and gave the world his 1990s postcards from the edge, the world asked if he was pulling its leg.

 

In our defence, Bowie himself didn’t seem too sure of himself either, at least to start with. Having belatedly realised that he couldn’t trust the glossy productions to tell him whether the songs were any good, Tin Machine was an exercise in seeing what happened without it. Depressed after the Glass Spider tour, he’d started knocking around with avant-noise guitarist Reeves Gabrels. It was Gabrels who told him to fuck his career, fuck big tours, fuck entertainment and the mainstream: he was David Bowie for Chrissakes. And, well, you can see he was pretty keen to try it, but maybe not sure he’d get away with it under his own name.

 

Tin Machine the album is a slight piece of work. In fact, listen to it today and what strikes you is how much the writing resembles Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down, just without the breathy sax, syn-drums and white funk arrangements: these are short, shouted-chorus affairs with big, bassy riffs and an eye on live performance. I remember when it came out. We all scratched our heads. Was it another game? A beard for his writer’s block? Why was he trying to be The Pixies? In retrospect, Tin Machine was Bowie’s way of taking his name off the record, an attempt to dispense with the stadium sheen, the sax and star duets, while mitigating the feeling of nakedness and risk. It wasn’t the faux-modest ‘all boys together’ attempt to join a band he got slammed for: it was simply the closest someone this distinctive could get to turning up in disguise at his own pop funeral.

 

He may have been surprised that the world didn’t end. People seemed to like it, or at least tolerate it with more grace than they had the Glass Spider stuff. That alone seemed to cause a change in Bowie’s public persona. Under pressure from his label, the photoshoots for Tin Machine had still been stagey, glossy – George Michael stubble, not grunge stubble. But now something clicked. With his chapter-closing Sound+Vision 1990 touring retrospective and obligatory back-catalogue reissues out of the way, Bowie-watchers watched at he suddenly went dark.

 

But if the lights were off at the mansion on the hill, it was only because strange things were cooking down in the cellar. The decks were cleared. It was time to get back to work. Time to make up for that lost decade.

 

Bowie, like Dylan, like Scott Walker, like all of us really, is at his best when he’s got the fear. When he’s aware he’s wasted time, has some wrongs to right. In other words, when he’s trying. If Tin Machine was a test – did the people want big production numbers, the family entertainer? – Tin Machine II is Bowie at the start of a new creative streak. Criminally underrated at the time, all but unknown now, in a lot of ways it’s not really a Tin Machine album at all, but the first solo album by a reborn Bowie, and one who genuinely could not give less of a shit about sales or charts or what his old fanbase thought. The prescient proto-grunge is gone; the music has a lightness of touch, a melodic intensity, that thrills today, as it zips from haunting to elegiac to disassociated to downright spooky rock’n’roll. And all of it (bar the two numbers at the end he let the band to sing and perform without him) is fantastic.

 

The songs came with an ease they hadn’t for years. Look at the studio session log: Bowie produced more music, wrote more songs, performed more takes for Tin Machine II than for any other album he’d ever made, and in a terrifyingly short space of time, straight after coming off tour. And those songs – even the ones he dropped from the final album or just handed out to soundtracks and compilations, with great titles like ‘Needles On The Beach’ – are uniformly brilliant. ‘Goodbye Mr Ed’ is dazed urban beauty; ‘One Shot’ somehow manages to make what sounds like a cut-up 911 call log sound slinky and seductive; ‘Shopping For Girls’ is the terrifyingly dark (and prophetic) piece on the flipside to the ’90s global-citizen dream. ‘Baby Universal’ and ‘You Belong in Rock ‘n’Roll’ both make groovy pop do things it will never, ever tell its parents about.

 

Best of all, for a man so recently reduced to plundering his own ’70s songbook and styles to the point where he hated himself for it and retired the songs, the album sounds like nothing else he’s recorded before or since. It may be among his best; what it is, beyond doubt, is his most off-kilter. I guess if it has any affinities, it’s with Lodger: not in terms of how it sounds, but just because of its air of defiant oddness, freedom and play by a man in absolute and dead-eyed control.

 

Bowie knew he had a live one. He put a degree of thought into it that would have been unthinkable for Tonight or Never Let Me Down, albums he couldn’t wait to see the back of. The song ‘Amlapura’, an astonishing, wonky, spectral ballad about Bali, reincarnation and love-suicide, was re-recorded with Bowie singing translated lyrics for the Indonesian market. The naked statues on the cover, once they had fallen foul of American Christian groups, had their cocks Photoshopped for Wal-Mart. This was first-rate music and Bowie wanted it heard… So much so that when the head-scratching reviews that should have appeared for the last album were belatedly issued for this (we reviewers overcompensate for missed calls too) and the album was dismissed as a lark, Bowie put some of its songs out on a live album called Oy Vey Baby too, just to give them a second chance at being heard.

 

It didn’t matter. Bowie was still paying for his ‘80s dilettantism. The world still suspected – still suspects today – that the band was nothing but a put-on by an insincere man incapable of anything but dabbling. The indie label he’d issued it on folded. The album struggled to a lowly 126 on the billboard charts. It remains unavailable in any form.

 

So he retired Tin Machine. But he didn’t retire its spirit. The creative nucleus, a writing partnership between him and experimental guitarist Reeves Gabrels, regrouped in 1992 to make the big Bowie comeback everyone had been hoping for. Record company execs were delighted, the public was happy, after all they thought they were finally getting a reliable, Paul McCartney-type heritage rock act they wanted. They got Nile ‘Let’s Dance’ Rodgers on board again, arranged overdub sessions with hot-at-the-time soul singer Al B Sure! and ex-Spider From Mars Mick Ronson, cleared permission for some covers, then sat back and awaited commercial paydirt.

 

Bowie had other ideas.

 

Black Tie White Noise is an album so strange, so subversive, that I’m not even sure I understand it even now, let alone like it. But fucking hell, it was thrilling to have it land. The key was in one of the covers: Scott Walker’s Nite Flights was the former balladeer’s frightening 1978 fuck-you to the mainstream and to the ballads his record companies kept asking him to record. If you know Walker – a personal hero of Bowie – then you know where Black Tie White Noise (that title, another clue) is coming from. The album was made up of ballads (including a Morrissey cover) being taken on a series of lonely walks down a number of very dark alleyways, then snuffed with glassy-eyed precision of a David Lynch hitman, with occasional noise-rock dissonance soundtracking the murders.

 

One ballad especially, ‘Don’t Let Me Down And Down’ sounds hopelessly sappy at first. And that weird accent he sings it in – stilted globish-patois-something. What the hell is going on? Few spotted that the song was a cover of a song originally in Arabic by a Mauritanian singer, Tahra Mint Hembara, that he’d picked up on a CD Iman had brought back from an Arab market in Paris; fewer still that Bowie was singing it as someone – say, the writer – who spoke no English would sing it to an Anglophone audience from a phonetic sheet. Goodbye, soppy ballad; hello again, Brechtian alienation device. The song is no longer about love at all; but about the difficulty of communicating. It’s the immigrant’s lament: no-one hears what I want to say, be it ever so heartfelt or wise, because they hear this stupid inarticulacy. At home I was a surgeon; here I am just your dumb immigrant taxi-driver. It’s ‘Shopping For Girls’ dark side to the peachy-keen 1990s dream again. From Bowie, coming off the back of being burned for Tin Machine II, it’s also an appropriately mute protest. The people I’m speaking to can’t hear past my baggage. We’re all prisoners of who we are. Watch what you say. Everything gets twisted.

 

Coming from a career chameleon, someone who flits effortlessly between discourses and audiences through the ’70s, this is a terrifying confession. It is the moment after the screaming nightmares and recoil of Baal and Diamond Dogs. We’re now squarely in Beckett territory. And the punchline? Nobody noticed. But it chilled me then, and it chills me now.

 

A spooky, cold, playful, expert, fond yet rather sinister act of convention-fucking, the album is Bowie’s Twin Peaks. (In fact, he’d made the movie spin-off Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with Lynch immediately before commencing sessions.) The music practically dared you to take it at face value. ‘Jump They Say’, the lead single, was a pinprick-eyed krautrock disco number that some said was about his schizophrenic brother Terry, but sounds for all the world like a note telling us that he’s not making the record we think he’s making. For the first time in years, he’s listening to his own inner voices again. Commercial suicide? They say: Jump. Even the TV ad for the album was 30 seconds of complete silence. If anyone ever, ever tells you Bowie’s Thin White Duke period sounds arch, cokey and Replicanty, play them this. It’ll terrify them.

 

Black Tie White Noise was the coded warning. Then Bowie jumped. And shit got real.

 

From his soundtrack for the BBC TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia – a killer single, haunting, ambient instrumentals, off-beam dance grooves, issued with zero marketing then almost immediately deleted – Bowie discarded all the maps. A hymn to South London by way of Philip Glass, the Kray twins and East Germany, it felt flash, flick-knifey and pastoral, druggy and decadent and wistful and folky at the same time, acoustic guitars blending into drones and deep beats. It was a hell of a trick to pull off, and it sounded nothing like Low or “Heroes” either. Again, he seemed to be enjoying flying under the radar – the book’s multi-culti England became his brief, his jumping off point, just as his train journeys through the East had inspired Low. It is an astonishing album.

 

It came out with the book TV tie-in cover on the sleeve. Someone at the record company got hot-at-the-time soul-rock crossover muppet Lenny Kravitz to overdub some rockist guitar on the title track and issued it as a single. Nobody noticed.

 

As his creative roll gathered speed and power, it spun him further and further from what his record company kept telling journalists. You could almost sense his publicists’ glee as he announced he’d do the next album with Brian Eno in Montreux… and their despair as he returned with something like 20 hours of a cut-up music theatre piece influenced by Nietzsche, Einstein, body modification, ‘50s film noir and the concept of a digitized future.

 

That became a triple CD, then a single album. It was called 1.Outside. It was fantastic. Songs like ‘Thru These Architects’ Eyes’ and ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ were hit singles from another universe; ‘Leon Takes Us Outside’ and ‘We Prick You’ show the kind of controlled theatrics even Berlin-era Bowie never had, and outtakes ‘Nothing To Be Desired’ and ‘Hide Me’ show the Bowie/Eno axis throwing caution overboard, free-associating and sparking more amazing ideas per bar than most artists manage in a lifetime.

 

What’s really odd, in retrospect, isn’t the music, but the reaction to it. It became a critical truism that he’d ‘gone techno’ – even though the music itself really only suggested it in as many places as it suggested avant-garde cocktail jazz or Dashiel Hammett. Fans and critics alike asked why Bowie insisted on doing this weirdy stuff, and sniggered at the idea he’d stoop to some sort of futuristic narrative with story interludes – as if Diamond Dogs and The 1980 Floor Show had never actually happened. They wanted unpredictable Bowie to be good old Bowie, doing the hits, like he always used to. Me, I was glad to have music this different and dark and amazing, and when it failed – and there are moments on 1.Outside when he overreaches badly, just like there always had been on Young Americans and Diamond Dogs and the rest – that was OK too because, well, just watch him blazing away.

 

Bowie was clearly having the time of his life with this new material too, and that manic joy just explodes from anything and everything he did in the 1990s. His next appearance was probably the single most savage, thrilling, hilarious and joyful performance he’s ever recorded, a split performance (‘duet’ just doesn’t capture it) with actor Gary Oldman on the track ‘The King of Stamford Hill’ from Gabrels’ solo album The Sacred Squall Of Now. Recorded as part of an abandoned adaptation of Steven Berkoff’s London gangland play West, it is an almost unhinged cry of power, fury and liberation. Gabrels and the drummer are clearly trying to race each other to the end of the song, Oldman performs his best Dickensian Cockney commentary and Bowie is in character as a pissed-off Hackney gangster who’s had just about enough. Someone’s stolen his turf, and he wants it back. (Put that in your career timeline.) The key moment is Bowie’s refrain, “Ain’t it fucking curious, some other cunts are trying to ditch the king of Stamford Hill”, and to this day it remains my favourite performance by either Bowie the singer or Oldman the actor. Snuck out on Gabrels’ album, like Tin Machine II, Black Tie White Noise and the Buddha soundtrack, it zipped over the heads of Bowie fans and critics who seemed to want their Bowie to become a jukebox again, like the Stones or Paul McCartney.

 

Yet that glinty-eyed mania, that sense of creative liberation, was something you could practically smell at the gigs. The tours around this time were a hoot. Out with Nine Inch Nails, Morrissey, whoever fancied taking him on, Bowie and the steady group of outcasts who’d coalesced around him and Gabrels would confront, subvert and strobe-fuck the audience.

 

He gigged at parties, he gigged in stadiums, he gigged incognito at festivals (as Tao Jones Index, sometimes even opening for David Bowie and performing electronic noise versions of ‘V2-Schneider’ and whatever else he felt like taking apart). This was Tin Machine by another name – a secret, low-pressure way of shedding (then grilling and eating) his career albatross. Searing new arrangements of old hits, extended, deepening grooves that sucked you in like whirlpools then spat you into the middle of somewhere you thought you’d known but now weren’t sure: I took some acid along to one gig, only to nix the plan the moment the music started, just because I wanted to be 100% sure it really was this off-the-map.

 

This live-without-a-net vibe informed 1997’s Earthling – probably the prime document of this period, and the single Bowie album of any period to which I return most often.

 

Every song was a single, the band was tight, and Bowie the performer and songwriter and bandleader was stomping all over it with the sublime confidence of a man who knows what he’s got. His partner in crime Reeves Gabrels was all over this one, playing punkish provocateur to Bowie’s purer pop sensibilities. The pair egged each other on, taking on dares and imposing seemingly insane rules. ‘Little Wonder’ was to include the names of all seven dwarfs in its lyric, in such a way that nobody would notice. (Nobody did.) On ‘Looking For Satellites’, Bowie told Gabrels to divide his guitar solo into four parts, each using just one string on his guitar (E, A, D, G) and keeping it in constant 16th notes. The result is as amazing as it is unlikely, Bowie by way of Beefheart. The whole album, the whole exercise, is stunning.

 

‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’, ‘Battle for Britain’, ‘Telling Lies’, even uncharacteristically chirpy single ‘Little Wonder’ with its unforgettable video, would have made this the debut album of the year. This is some of his best music. Not since Scary Monsters… but his best music, period. Critics called it his drum’n’bass album, but again, it’s pretty hard to hear what they were thinking of, or why its skewed electronics make it more of a drum’n’bass album than, say, Blur’s 13. Time Out berated ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ for being racist with regard to Americans.

 

Every artist needs honest engagement to survive. Even Dylan at least got booed when he went electric. But 1990s Bowie got second-hand feedback from people who heard everything but the music, bought the lazy orthodoxies, told him he’d made a techno album, or joined a pub-rock band, or whatever, and really just wanted Rebel Rebel. The Earthling tour ended. The Buddha of Suburbia suffered the ignominy of being deleted. And then, perhaps having realised nobody was listening, or perhaps having run his own energy reserves down – just as he had after his 1970s hot streak – something changed. As the 1990s ended, it seemed Bowie just ran out of fight.

 

The result was a retreat – probably the first artistic retreat (as opposed to a misstep) he’d ever really made.

 

1999’s Hours… was like some horrible act of public contrition for being so risky and abandoned and downright weird for the past few years; an exercise in showing everyone he’d shed the neophyte nonsense, and could be trusted to be good old David again, honest. There he was on the cover, cradling the dead body of the crop-haired, goateed 1990s Bowie. The music is… I don’t know. To me it sounds like a songwriter going, “I haven’t a bloody clue, you tell me: is this what you want?”

 

Thus began the most depressing rehabilitation in pop history. The retreat continued, Bowie enlisting his ‘70s producer Tony Visconti and a host of heritage rock guests (Pete Townshend, Dave Grohl) and started a career as David Bowie, national treasure, even touring 1976’s Low album in its entirety together with Heathen (2002). He took to curating his own established body of work instead of adding to it in any meaningful way. Gabrels, his demon familiar for a decade, was out. Tasteful, Tonight-style covers – of George Harrison, Neil Young, The Pixies – were back in. Heathen and Reality (2003) were just fine, if you came to hear something that made noises a bit like David Bowie. They contained precisely nothing remotely new, unexpected or off-message. Those bug-eyed, mind-bending 1990s albums were squeezed out of conservative, crowd-pleasing setlists. It was a numbers game again.

 

Me, I’m not surprised he wanted a whole ten years away from the game after he had his heart attack on the Reality tour. Where’s the fun in being a waxwork?

The real tragedy of Bowie’s career isn’t that he frittered away his credibility on the production sheen, superstar duets and auto-pilot albums of the 1980s. It’s that by the time he conquered his monumental writer’s block and set off blazing a crazed trail of deep, searching creativity that even his ‘70s work only foreshadowed, the world had stopped listening.

 

Or perhaps it’s that we only took him back to our hearts again when he came to heel, stopped challenging us and became a David Bowie impersonator. Lately, belatedly, people have started to discover 1990s Bowie. Gary Numan and XFM’s Eddy Temple Morris have both come out as fans of the earthling, while in 2010 Uncut called Tin Machine II one of the most unfairly overlooked albums in history. Well, small pockets of resistance and all that. We could form a support group. There’s four of us now.

 

So here’s the new single. It’s elegiac, quite lovely. It quotes his past, talks about his Berlin period. The critics are falling over themselves to praise it. And any minute now, here comes the album. And if it doesn’t sound anything like the David Bowie album you’d hoped it would be after all these years away? Be careful what you wish for.