If you’re a pop star, the armour of a sizeable ego can come in handy – not least to defend yourself against the doubly gargantuan egos of the executives on whom your career can depend. Of course, it’s a long time since David Bowie had to explain himself to his paymasters across five decades with Pye, Deram, EMI and RCA. But for some, like Bob Lefsetz, author of daily online mailshot The Lefsetz Letter, old habits die hard. “It needed to be upbeat, it needed to be one listen. Not something that you might like over time, not when the whole world is watching,” wrote Lefsetz – one of millions of people around the world reacting to Bowie’s delivery of Where Are We Now?, his first new song in a decade.
With unintended comic effect, Lefsetz continued to offer advice that Bowie didn’t need and for which no-one else had asked. “Bowie, want to get it right? Do it the Mumford way. UNDERSELL! First he needed to go on the road, playing small venues at fair prices that you couldn’t get in. That would generate real publicity.” Real publicity? As opposed to the sort that gets you four pages in the next day’s edition of The Times? For one song? That’s more than four times as much as James Brown got in the same paper. For dying.
In fairness, Lefsetz’s voice wasn’t the only murmur of dissent. A trickle of tweeters reckoned that if you set aside the hype, the song was forgettable. “Turgid,” said one best-selling author. On the other hand, Spandau Ballet’s lifelong Bowie apostle Gary Kemp found himself “in tears” at Where Are We Now? Indeed, any pop star whose personality was forged in the shadow of Ziggy Stardust came forth to reaffirm their vows. Marc Almond and Holly Johnson seemed unable to concentrate on anything else for a whole day. And yet, you couldn’t call it euphoria. It was something more akin to the mood of Where Are We Now? itself – Bowie singing his own psychogeography in cracked, elegiac tones suggested that, in his absence, he had been doing exactly the same thing that we’d been doing. Arranging his legacy into some sort of comprehensible order. Working out what it all meant. In The Times, David Hepworth pointed out that, last time Bowie made a record (2003’s Reality), there was no warm glow. No sense that, as Caitlin Moran put it in the same paper, “Bowiemas” had come.
Context can’t turn bad music into good, but it’s a factor in determining the part that music plays in our lives. For years, the official line was that Bowie had retreated from view, prompting persistent rumours that he was in terminal decline. Even if he wasn’t ill, his retreat meant that – by a process of deduction – any new Bowie news would almost certainly be awful. So, I think that explains the heightened sense of gratitude. It’s not a world away from the gratitude you might feel if a close friend had found out that their cancer had been misdiagnosed.
I think this is what people who don’t much care for Where Are We Now? misunderstand about those who do. And it’s also key to the way we relate to our favourite artists. Once artists become part of our lives, we’re effectively in correspondence with them. We remember what we were doing and who we were when they crash-landed into our lives. We chart our development as human beings by using their music as co-ordinates. I don’t know how many bad albums Van Morrison or Julian Cope would have to make before I stopped listening to them. I hold out hope for the good ones and I learn a little more about them from the bad ones. I have friends with whom I keep in touch by post. I’m not going to disown them on the strength of their more cursory tossed-off letters. Or the ones where they sound mad. Neither would it be appropriate to reply to those letters by critiquing them.
Sometimes, I want to take every band fretting about their following up a debut album to one side and point this out to them. You’ll drive yourself mad if you feel that every record needs to be a definitive statement. There isn’t a record in Blur’s back catalogue that I don’t skip at some point – but somehow that resonates more with the sense of a life lived, with all its triumphs and denouements. Of course, everyone has their breaking point with an artist, and this is why Scott Walker provokes such debate with every new release. Is he taking the piss or what? Who listens to this stuff for pleasure? Well, it might not be more than a handful. But if I’m to be perfectly honest, it isn’t strictly for “pleasure” that I go and see my parents. It’s not “pleasure” that sees a lot of lapsed catholics going to church.
We do these things because they’re part of our story. And it’s like that with David Bowie too. If it was a piece of outsider art from an obscure 66 year-old debutante, Where Are We Now? might have shifted a few copies to people happening upon it in the racks of Rough Trade. But it wasn’t that at all. It was a postcard from someone we love. And if the record’s great, then so much better. Because, when all’s said and done, that’s how we listen to music. That’s how we’ve always listened to music.