Seven weeks now since they took Bowie’s passport and shoes, and with them a fair number of, umm, older people’s youthful sedatives too (boo! death comes to everyone. boo-hoo…) In return: a scary and intriguing answer to a question that probably not too many people were asking before January 10th: what did happen to Major Tom after he cut circuits and sailed off into space, beyond the word at the end of his 1970s heyday that he had turned junkie ?
It’s difficult to think of any artist of anything approaching Bowie’s stature (not that there were, or are, many) who can have so effectively blown off such a large slice of their own original fan base as he did with the slick commercialism of Let’s Dance in 1983. Before that he was a cult, albeit probably the most successful one in the western world; but he was a cult of weirdness, difference, alienation, in whom anyone who felt even slightly that way could feel themselves represented, in almost as many ways as he had listeners. In 1983, suddenly he was mainstream, and massive with it: 10-million-sales massive. Well on his way to net worth 70 million quid. But once he had taken that road hardly anybody I knew, at least – though he undoubtedly kept on selling to someone – paid much attention to anything he did again. Yes of course there were the die-hards who would keep touting each latest as the best since, what, Scary Monsters? But they generally got humoured, filed in the same box as Zappa obsessives who couldn’t stop raving in midnight bars about their hero’s every tedious guitar lick. His iconography spread far and wide, into the strangest places: on the November 2012 cover of Thai Vogue, the ideal living room features a shaggy-haired Hours-era portrait high up on the wall. But all through his commercial car crash of the 1980s and his (on the face of it) has-been struggle in the 1990s to make up lost ground, how many really knew – or cared – what had happened to Major Tom?
Meanwhile, without really noticing, you got old enough that young was something which, although it still felt like you ought to be, you could no longer pretend that you were; the world had changed in ways you never expected, and a lot of what was going on around was so much less intelligible than where you had come from. Way less intelligible than Bowie had been, even at his most cryptic, in the ’70s. But then, out of the blue: here was the ultra-cool cover to “Heroes” again, except this time with a blank white box in place of Bowie’s head:
And a well weird – almost Scary Monsters weird – video of a poignant song about how what had once been was no more:
Hitherto in the 21st century Bowie had apparently been content to, if not exactly rest on, then at least give a breezy airing to his rock god laurels (and after he had achieved in a single decade what most couldn’t hope to given millennia, who could have begrudged him the right to be comatose on them if he chose?) Read reviews of Heathen and Reality, and a word you’ll find to describe those albums’ relationship to the rest of his oeuvre is “coda”. And then, after ten years’ silence, The Next Day, a patchily intriguing comeback: a vague waft of nostalgia, like listening to a revered old uncle who always has something interesting to say and some great stories, always welcome on the basis of the awesome heroics of his youth, but hardly likely to do anything surprising or fresh.
But then, unbeknown to anyone, the clinic called: the x-ray was not fine; there were scars that could not be seen. The first hint (for those who were listening) that he was turning again to face the strange came in late 2014, with the original, single version of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime): out of the static swirls a dark summary rewrite of a sinister Jacobean tragedy, an eerie, Scott Walker-esque vocal line drifting unevenly over an edgy brass arrangement, and ending with the lingeringly held word “goodbye…” Panting to keep up was the equally strange b-side ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, blessed with a lyric of poetic compression and finesse (if an altogether muddier and more tentative delivery than its later incarnation on Blackstar).
Another year, and the album landed. For two days, a musical adventure, and a lyrical puzzle worthy of The Bewlay Brothers: what the hell is he on about? Came the shock, and everybody knew him now: not the next, but the last day. Nothing left to lose. It sounded like it too: in another context the last few songs on Blackstar might almost have gone down as fillers, but not here. The poignancy of the English evergreens he’ll never see; the knowledge that something is very wrong, that he’s “dying to”; the wistful harmonica quote – moving on again – from A New Career In A New Town, as he drifts away protesting, over a backdrop of yearning Fripp-esque guitar, that he can’t give everything away…
So he wrote his own requiem. And not in a tried-and-tested idiom, as the flailing saxophones and key shifts of ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore attest – not to mention the sheer strangeness of the title track. And now we know what became of Major Tom: he fetched up dead in his 1970s spacesuit on an alien world where girls have tails, his jewel-encrusted skull discovered during a (permanent?) eclipse to be installed as the venerated relic of a cult of trembling people. As his earthly remains spiral into the black star that (as Elvis sang) every man has over his shoulder, it is Bowie himself, lazarized, who leads the worship, posing with a holy book in iconography that mocks – or apes – another, darker, cult leader and cultural revolutionary:
And so the process of canonization begins: the tribute concerts, the cover versions at awards ceremonies, the thoughtful reminiscences, the irony-proof rock stars lining up to relate how honored they were that he refused to work with them because he thought their music was crap. It’s all over the papers: he was not just a great artist, but a great man too – so kind, polite, considerate, always brought out the best in people, never a harsh word for anyone. Ah yes Gary Oldman, “He was the very definition, the living embodiment of that singular word; icon.”
Meanwhile, back in the video: here we are on the day of execution, in the villa of Ormen – or was that all men? And what’s this: everyday fellas crucified in agony – what, on the wooden details of their own ordinary lives? – as some rough beast of ill intent slouches towards them; yet still with enough life left to gyrate their hips like Elvis, and defiantly poke their tongues out at fate? Wait a minute, how distant is this planet we’re on?
So right at the death, when few suspected he had it in him any more, he fooled us again, pushing musical boundaries and backs against the grain just like he did throughout the ’70s; and he got us bang to rights while he was at it. There he was once more, in the Lazarus video, still getting educated and frantically writing it down, even as the fantastic voyage of this fabulously stylish and creative south London gent was drawing to an end. Back then he was our generation’s guide to living; in 2016, our guide to his own death and sanctification.
Now that’s a proper coda. What (as Tony Visconti said) a parting gift; what a final wham bam. For the last time, thank you man.