NOT QUITE DYING
David Bowie: The Next Day
At the beginning of 2013, #DavidBowie wasn’t exactly a trending topic. But a week later, with the sudden release of The Next Day, his name was exploding across the Internet in a stampede of chatter. For the first time since 2003, there was finally new music by one of rock’s most revered legends. It has been Bowie-mania redux ever since, manifesting in teeming crowds at his major retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a chart-topping record, an avalanche of magazine cover stories, and three high-profile videos. Bowie is back. And so is Tony Visconti.
Brooklyn’s Tony Visconti and Brixton-born David Bowie have collaborated on more than a dozen records, beginning with 1969’s Space Oddity. Prior to that, the young Bowie had been churning through ill-fitting genres and pounding the London pavement, seeking cracks in the music industry wall to crawl through. He was having little luck gaining career traction while the British Invasion was exploding sea-to-sea without him. The industry hadn’t a clue what to make of this mod-turned-freak-folk-hippy, and to be fair, Bowie was still honing his songwriting craft. He was performing in mime troupes and starting band after band, searching for his sound. Meanwhile, Visconti had relocated to London from New York to work with Procol Harum producer Denny Cordell. In his fascinating autobiography, Bowie, Bolan, and the Brooklyn Boy, he recalls his introduction to Bowie in Cordell’s office as being something of a musical set-up, the kind that rarely flourishes. However, there was quick chemistry between those two ambitious working-class lads from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and that occasion would prove to set some important gears in motion. Both of their careers would soon gain traction.
With Visconti behind the board, Bowie would create Space Oddity, the first major record of his seismic career and his first chart-topping success. Bowie and Visconti would then parlay that into the ultra-heavy The Man Who Sold the World—not a significant commercial achievement until Nirvana covered its title track in the 1990s, but a powerful musical statement nonetheless. Most importantly, it laid the groundwork for the Ziggy Stardust sound. TMWSTW,on which Visconti played all the bass parts, was a landmark in guitar sound production, thanks in no small part to Mick Ronson, arguably one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history.
More than 40 years later, amidst rampant retirement rumors and with little fanfare, Bowie released the single “Where Are We Now?” on his 66th birthday, and announced that his first new album in a decade would follow. It had been by far the longest hiatus of his legendary career, a virtual lifetime in the age of social media. Bowie’s previous LP, Reality, was released, promoted, and toured on before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, but hype has always come naturally to him. Remember, for example, that Bowie was the first major musician to offer up a song for download (“Telling Lies”) in 1996. In the era of the blabbermouth, Bowie and Visconti kept the recording sessions for The Next Day completely under the radar. Its existence was never leaked, a feat virtually unthinkable in a time when Twitter has given a platform to every soul on earth to empty their brain out in 140 characters. For two years, nobody said a word. Sure, all involved signed confidentiality agreements, but jaywalking is technically illegal in New York. It was a deep respect for the artistic generosity and work ethic of David Bowie that brought the band together in silence. When I recently asked Visconti if the clandestine pact added a buzz to The Next Day sessions, he said, “It was a buzz, but it was almost damaging. ‘What are you doing these days?’ was always a tough question to answer because if I say ‘nothing’ then it looks like I’m out of work. I always took the 6 train home after working in the studio. Our movements were very obvious if you were looking for signs of a new album being recorded. But no one ever put them together.”
The uproar following Bowie’s sudden reemergence showed how the power of restraint could fuel the public’s craving for another Bowie chapter. By first releasing the meditatively solemn “Where Are We Now?” Bowie might have fooled some fans into expecting a slow crawl into the grave from the once indefatigable one. However, the ballad of life in Berlin aside, The Next Day is the most distinctly rock ’n’ roll album Bowie has made since the first Tin Machine record in 1989.
Despite the easy temptation to indulge in the predictable comeback narrative, Bowie offers no revelatory explanation for his long break from the limelight. Instead, he lets the work speak for itself. Even with his band now talking freely about the recording sessions at the Magic Shop on Crosby Street, Bowie himself is saying little to nothing, leaving the rest of us “squawking like a pink monkey bird—busting up our brains for the words.”
“Here I am! Not quite dying!” Bowie rants on the title track of The Next Day, a spine-tingler that launches out of the gate with a single drum crack, and that slyly gleeful declaration signals an exuberant return to form. With the chops of a deft band of returning players behind Bowie, the album sets deathly tales of human depravity against a dynamically gritty yet melodic backdrop. There are high school shooters, prison guards, despots, conflicted soldiers, sinful priests, and desperate celebrities, and these characters rise up on the back of an urgent, guitar-driven sonic landscape—courtesy of Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard, and David Torn. The synthesizer experiments of previous records have largely been replaced by organic, propulsive rock songs. The spiritual ancestors of these tunes could be “Running Gun Blues,” “Scream Like a Baby,” “Joe The Lion,” or “Repetition.” In fact, drummer Zachary Alford told Uncut magazine that one of the songs on The Next Day, “Dancing Out in Space,” dates from the original Lodger sessions in 1978. Pulsating and hummable, with darkness lurking around the bend, it is Bowie at his edgy best.
It is this combination of personal intensity, melodic depth, and pure instrumental force that makes The Next Day an instant classic that comfortably stands alongside some of Bowie’s best work. The album also furthers the legacy of one of music’s most fruitful collaborations. By now, Bowie and Visconti are looking at 44 years and counting of compelling alchemy.