Doors of the mind: Ghosts and thresholds in Bowie, Dickens, and the Generation Game

 

I’ve never been able to pass a door in an ancient wall without wondering what’s behind it.

spooky door with ivy

I know the truth is overwhelmingly likely to be mundane, but my subconscious mind can’t help picking out the details: the old ivy growth across it; the absence of any mechanism on the outside; the permanent silence on the other side of the wall.

 

Maybe I’m just nosey, but I’ve noticed that this door brings out different responses in people. Some want to know what’s behind it. Some fantasise what’s behind it. Others want to leave it well alone and walk on.

 

Doors have always been been as much about us as them; what we’ll see and what it’ll cost us. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. The ones at the end of the hall in Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’, and the ones in his band’s name. In the tales of M.R. James, where they keep the living from the dead, for a while. In Bowie’s inner-demons-themed ‘Scary Monsters’, “opening strange doors that we’d never close again”.

 

 

What’s behind the door? Every gameshow and religion in history promises us that we can find out, if we play it right… but only ever at the end. Jacob Marley’s ghost comes to Scrooge as a door knocker: the future laid bare, if you’re ready to look and close enough to the void to see in. The scores are always on the doors – in the Generation Game just like they are for Marley/Scrooge and doorcheck St Peter.

 

This particular door – the one I pass and wonder about – reminds me of the last moments of ’60s acid guru Timothy Leary. On his deathbed, he fell silent, then as he died, he simply said “Why not?”

 

Maybe that silence from the other side of the threshold made him curious too.

 

Resignations as historical force: Jurassic Park, grunge, capitalism and the story of the 1990s

 Tyrannosaurus rex resigns in jurassic Park

There’s a lot of noise about Jurassic World cleaning up in cinemas right now. But what about the real back story? Back in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was – unlikely as it might seem – part of the same global breakdown as grunge and the Berlin Wall.

 

Sound weird? In this short extract from my book F***k You & Goodbye: A History of the Resignation, it gets weirder.

 

With hindsight, the 1990s’ great theme was refusal; the decade’s core act was not the salute, but the shrug. The ironic, the uncommitted, were about to take over the world.

 

Across the world, and in Britain more than anywhere, the coming decade was to be a fruitful time for creative, public quitters. On my return in late 1990, I started collecting resignations and analysing their backgrounds in earnest. It wasn’t easy, simply because over here, too, there were suddenly so many flying around. Thatcherism was imploding, with Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe taking turns at playing Mark Antony and Brutus with their own parting shots. Then, as recession hit Britain and the West, and the eighties achievers’ party hit the buffers, it was business’s turn. These were not the quiet goodbyes of yesteryear, but great, furious, splattering media events.

 

This was the dawning of a great age of corporate dissent.

 

In the West, the slackers wandered off the career path with a shrug – their anti-aspiration the mirror image of all those refuseniks in the East now discovering the joys of consumer society – while Adbusters’ subversive ‘truth in advertising’ defacement campaigns echoed the theatrical marginalia of the Berlin Wall’s Eastside Gallery. Self-empowerment was in, and suddenly no soap opera, cabinet meeting, movie, international summit or AGM was complete without a grandstanding declaration of independence.

 

Climactic, public resignations became a powerful international currency, everywhere from Wall Street to Hollywood. The era’s defining movies – Slacker (1991), The Firm (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), A Few Good Men (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Clerks (1994), even Jurassic Park (1993), all feature stars plotting and rehearsing their eventual break from the hypocrisy, villainy or empty repetition of their professional roles.

 

(Surely a candidate for least likely resignation speech in history is the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park: Richard Attenborough’s park boss, micro-managing every aspect of the lives of the revenue-generating animals inside his hermetically sealed biodome, is as clear an early-1990s everyboss or Iron Curtain dictator as ever lived, with his insistence that everyone could be bought, and his creation of minutely surveilled spaces for workers, human and reptile alike.

 

It’s great fun to watch it now as Berlin Wall or corporate allegory: the literal iron curtain keeping humans and dinos apart! Jeff Goldblum’s ominous soliloquy on chaos! The heroes’ suspicion of being co-opted into branded ideology! It’s no coincidence that when they rebel, the animals not only wreck the commercial plan, but vandalise his company’s iconic logo. As T. Rex tears apart the logos on the branded Jurassic Park hoardings in the final scene, he becomes the movie’s anti-corporate hero; its Adbuster; he gives his notice with a roar of independence that brings the whole venture crumbling down. The inhabitants have wrestled their own land back.)

 

By 1993, ‘getting on’ in your job had come to look, at least in pop-cultural terms, very much like being suckered. Irvine Welsh’s sarcastic jab at aspirational eighties consumerism in his bestseller of that year, Trainspotting – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham! T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – became a pop-culture mantra, appearing on albums, club singles, and finally on T-shirts of its own: ‘Choose life. Choose a job . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future.’

 

Pop culture’s superstars were Homer Simpson and Kurt Cobain, its key image the swimming baby chasing a dollar. Beck defined the mood with ‘Loser’ (1994), and vowed he wasn’t ‘going to work for no soul-sucking jerk’ on an album that seemed to dramatise quitting jobs (blowing leaves/washing dishes/putting chicken in a bucket with a soda/whatever) over and over again, while Rage Against The Machine created the ultimate ’90s chorus with ‘Killing In The Name’’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” (1992).

 

Berlin Wall Nirvana: The grunge take on 1990s history

 

The 1990s revolution was not about the fall of communism: it was about the realization by people all over the world that being a committed swallower of the post-war company line didn’t deliver what it promised. The ’80s contract, here as in the stagnating East, was a dud. The hour of the workplace dissident, the self-immolating truth-bomber, had come at last.

 

Loser by Beck Ceausescu remix

“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

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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.