Back to Berlin
Thomas Jones · Bowie's Late Style
David Bowie fans are beside themselves (oh all right, ourselves) with delight at yesterday’s surprise release of ‘Where Are We Now?’ It's his first new song in ten years, all the papers are saying, though that’s to overlook the mean and jaunty ditty about Ricky Gervais from the second season of Extras (2006): ‘He’s got no style, he’s got no grace, he’s banal and facile, he’s a fat waste of space. Yeah yeah. Everybody sing that last line.’ Fans’ judgments aren’t exactly trustworthy – the internet’s still swarming with people who bafflingly regret Bowie’s non-appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony – but by this late stage in his career (which until yesterday, his 66th birthday, was widely believed to be probably over), who else is the song for? The fact of its being by Bowie is what mostly counts.
It’s a nicely put together ballad, sad and lush, that could plausibly have come out of the sessions for 2002’s Heathen. It’s full of musical quotations from and allusions to earlier work, and the lyrics directly recall Bowie’s late 1970s Berlin period: ‘Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz,’ it begins – or, as Tony Oursler’s mesmerising video has it, ‘Potzdamer’. There’s been no end of fevered speculation about what various elements of the video may mean. Who’s Bowie's sock-puppet Siamese twin? Where (and when) were the shots of Berlin taken? What’s with all the dogs? And what’s that ‘m/s Song of Norway’ T-shirt about? But what I want to know is who plays the guitar in the coda, with its tantalising echoes of Robert Fripp’s playing on ‘Heroes’. Fripp announced last year that he had retired from the music business. But then they said that about David Bowie too.