The Great Chameleon Leaves Us Part 3: 21st Century Comeback

Yesterday (February 10) was a month to the day since Bowie’s death, which continues to haunt me for very personal reasons. I felt I should mark that moment with the third installment in my series on his music. Bowie was a man of ideas as well as music and the two often intersected, so unlike so many vacuous celebrities, he was a fascinating interview subject. For those who are interested, I highly recommend checking out the links I’ve supplied to various interviews with Bowie.

New Career in a New Millennium: Reclaiming the Bowie Mojo

The dawn of the new millennium seems to have provided a new creative stimulus for Bowie, and Heathen had some of his strongest songwriting in a decade. Arguably, this started with ‘Hours…’ (1999), a return to Hunky Dory era stripped-down songwriting after his forays into the often turgid industrial rock and grunge of the ’90s . Though once again, Heathen falters somewhat once we get past Sunday, Cactus, Slow Burn, Slip Away, and Afraid, with the title track Heathen (The Rays) providing a lift at the end. The other songs are certainly pleasant but not hugely memorable. The extras on the bonus disc are another example of stuff that should have been left in the vault, with a terrible live version of Watch That Man desecrating the memory of that classic song. Pointless extras and the endless repackaging of greatest hits albums were always a pet peeve of mine with Bowie. Still, Heathen remains a standout album in Bowie’s recent catalogue.

Bowie circa Reality album, 2003.

Reality (2003) showed Bowie hitting his stride again. It’s a surprisingly cohesive album with many standouts—New Killer Star, Never Get Old (with lyrics he would soon have occasion to regret), The Loneliest Guy, Reality and Bring Me the Disco King, to name only a few. “The return of the thin white duke” here and on Heathen is not Bowie but his longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, and it shows in Visconti’s impeccable production values. Gone is the mud in your ear, the muted dynamics lost in the atonal electronica of the ’90s. The Reality title proved eerily ironic, when he collapsed backstage with a heart attack and had to be rushed into cardiac surgery in Germany in 2004. The reality of aging was finally catching up with the Great Chameleon, though he still looked fantastic. His intellectual powers after a lifetime’s cultivation were at a high pitch, as evident in these comments from an interview at the time of the album’s release: “I feel that reality has become an abstract for so many people over the last 20 years. Things that they regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it’s almost as if we’re thinking post-philosophically now. There’s nothing to rely on any more. No knowledge, only interpretation of those facts that we seem to be inundated with on a daily basis. Knowledge seems to have been left behind and there’s a sense that we are adrift at sea. There’s nothing more to hold on to, and of course political circumstances just push that boat further out.”

Bowie was an early adopter of the Internet, and started his own web platform, Bowienet, finally retired in 2012. In his interview with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC in 1999, he predicted that the Internet—this is before social media was invented—would become a double-edged sword, both “wonderful and terrifying” in its societal effects. As always, he was seeing deep into the future and among the spectres he glimpsed there were both Facebook stalkers and Arab Spring activists. One of the best comments I heard in the wake of his death was: “Facebook has vastly improved since it’s become all Bowie, all the time.” It demonstrates the power of a good example, a well-lived life, to bring out the good in others.

Heathen was a return to top form for Bowie in 2002. Courtesy Wikimedia

Strangely, now that he’s dead, lyrics I’ve heard all my life and largely taken for granted are suddenly revealing new depths. The slashed canvases depicted on the Heathen artwork, along with key books in Western civilization, were glimpses of the looting and destruction of world art and archaeological treasures that started with the Iraq War and has continued to the present with Isis terrorism. ( Speaking of the post-Nietzshean, post-Freudian 20th century world of “God is dead,” and quantum physics he said: “We were now the gods. And the greatest thing we could do as God during that century was create the (nuclear) bomb. I’d like to believe that we can learn from our mistakes, although I don’t really believe that will happen.” Bowie was articulating the lingering malaise at the heart of civilization in the early 21st century.

After retirement Bowie surprised us again with a new album, The Next Day (2013). From the beginning, its odd cover art, with a single white text box in the middle of the image from Heroes, made me wonder. Was Bowie doing a piss-take on his own legend? The approach to the songs was akin to the electro-punk of Low, Heroes and Scary Monsters, a period I wasn’t particularly fond of to begin with (except for Low). As always, there are standouts on The Next Day, especially Where Are We Now?, Valentine’s Day, I’d Rather Be High and Set the World on Fire. Here again, an entire essay could be written on Bowie’s lyrics. Still, I can’t say I was blown away by this album. Despite being a lifelong Bowie fan, it left me feeling underwhelmed when I heard news of his latest album. At one point I even thought: Isn’t it time to really retire, David? But I have to admit, The Next Day grows on me with every listen—always the sign of a finely crafted work of art.

Bowie in the video to Backstar.

But that was before hearing Blackstar and learning the incredible backstory to it. The title track is ethereal and moody in a way that reminds me of Low’s classic instrumentals. The strange video imagery and choreography are disconcerting, not least due to Bowie’s physical appearance, which was shocking. Suddenly the Dorian Gray of rock was showing all his years and then some. It was hard not to suspect illness again, despite repeated denials from his family and management team. The hospital bed theme in the Lazarus video should have been the most obvious clue, yet millions were shocked by his sudden death on January 10. That video ends with him climbing into a wardrobe, like a fairy tale character slipping out of this world and into another dimension. (A theme explored in the TV Series Once Upon a Time.) Commentators speak of Bowie “stage managing his death” but I see it as an impressive dedication to dignity and family privacy. Instead of exploiting his cancer like so many media whores, he wanted to keep his family and personal life separate, sacrosanct. He should be a major mentor to the current generation of child stars mired in narcissistic excess. Bowie always spoke intelligently with interviewers (when they were capable of it, which wasn’t often) and even with those who were boors, he kept his cool, responding like a gentleman.

“Wherever I’m going, I promise it won’t be boring.” It was something he said at his 50th birthday party concert and again at his death. As an artist it’s a promise he repeatedly fulfilled, refusing to be stuck in a single image that must be dragged out decade after decade like so many others in pop music. Bowie has enriched our lives by his presence, and as with any great artist, his work will continue to resonate and reward repeated listening with new depths and resonances. Goodbye, Great Chameleon. We needed you, we loved you, and we won’t forget you.


• The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman interviews Bowie (1999) on music, drugs and the Internet:

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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