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Getting ready for Saturday’s exclusive interview with author Sean Egan: Recapping my thoughts on Bowie on Bowie

My exclusive interview with author Sean Egan will post on Saturday. In addition to writing several books and work as a journalist, Sean edited the compilation book of Bowie interviews titled Bowie on Bowie, which I read in 2022. Below is an edited and rearranged presentation of what I wrote, inspired by the book at the time. Its less a review and more a series of thoughts on what reading the interviewed got me to thinking.

I’m going to delay my weekly installment of Bowie on Politics until next week because I think this sets the stage for Saturday’s truly special interview. So come back for that, and for now, this is an edited version of what I wrote while reading, and after reading, Sean Egan’s Bowie on Bowie:

7/26/22

I recently finished a book of chronological Bowie interviews tittles, Bowie on Bowie, edited by Sean Egan. The interviews, especially arranged as they were, were fascinating. I have always liked Bowie for his music, and to an extent his larger presentation. I have never thought of him as a role model or a wise man, or even someone who has much in common with me. He seems like he was a likable guy after he beat drug addiction, but not so much when he was at his low point, in terms of personal health. The irony is that he produced some of his best work in the throes of addiction. Bowie says in some of these interviews that he used drugs less to party and more to keep working. And although that was never my personal strategy, I began to see a similarity in the sense that I deprived myself in other ways when I was most driven by work.

Here’s where our similarities began, which I was seeing for the first time. The interviews he gave around the time he was my age now, was of a man with a successful past but with his best days behind him. Bowie’s priorities shifted from his work to his family, especially after the birth of his second child: “Though he tries to keep abreast of current music…the only song he gets to hear regularly, he says, goes, ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round…’” This complication was published prior to Bowie’s death, and although The Next Day had been released, the last interviews in the book were from around the time of Reality, which was Bowie’s last album for 10 years.

The interviews in, Bowie on Bowie provide a composite self-assessment from Bowie himself. As a general matter, the impression I’m left with is that Bowie was very eager to move from album to album, style-shift to style shift during his artistic peak in the 1970s. He seemed to always not like his last album, most of which would go on to become classics. When asked, in 1978, about what he liked of his own nascent back catalogue, Bowie said, “the only one I like is Young Americans because it’s the only likable album, but the others, one could hardly apply the adjective likable to any of them.” This wasn’t some sort of up-is-down misdirectional use of then word, “likable.” Bowie would go on to trash his past work, which, though he didn’t name them, would include albums such as Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory.

It seemed that when Bowie was at the absolute cutting edge, he disparaged even his own desire to create music that people liked, “There comes a time when you [read: I] go through the most ridiculous posture of saying, ‘I’d be really pleased if everybody stopped buying my records so I could go away and do something else.’”

But it was probably all posture. Bowie would later become defensive when everything he put out was not critically successful. He defended Tin Machine at all times. To some extent, he did as well with Tonight and Never Let Me Down, claiming that the songs were good but… He’d give different explanations of the “but…” One theme, however, was that [his] “work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it and just do what I want to do.” So, while Bowie, with age, retreated from fantasizing about making records people didn’t like, he found comfort in the idea of not trying to give the people what they wanted.

But Bowie went back and forth. He would seem most disinterested when promoting albums that would turn out to be among his best, but would go so far as to ask interviewers’ their opinion on albums that would later be thought of as weak, like he wears fishing for affirmation.

Bowie defended playing songs from the Ziggy album during his Berlin-era tour, “I have absolutely no qualms about playing older things of mine that people like.” He would develop those qualms later. He touted his 1990 “Sound and Vision Tour” as the last time he’d play his greatest hits. The pledge was short lived, and later he reflected on his intentions at the time, “I didn’t know if my songs were any good. I’d spread myself very thin and I didn’t want to be intimidated by my own catalogue, so I thought I would really have to begin anew…As the 90s progressed I felt my writing was getting stronger…I now feel very confident about touring and putting new songs against old songs.”
By the end of the book, Bowie seemed to have been losing interest and focusing more on his marriage to Inman and their young daughter. After a health scare, he took a decade-long hiatus from music starting in 2003 and never toured again.

Something of an inside joke among people who read reviews of Bowie albums, at least during his life after the mid-80s, is that whatever happened to be his latest album was, “the best since Scary Monsters.” Forgot the album that came immediately before, which was also the best since Scary Monsters. It seems like the person who started this was Bowie himself. As far back as 1989, Bowie described the first Tin Machine album as, “kind of like catching up from Scary Monsters. It’s almost dismissive of the last three albums I’ve done. Getting back on course, you could say.”

And so, it would ever be thus. While Bowie himself never disowned Tin Machine, soon enough reviews would be dismissive of those albums, too. Three disparaged albums became five— six if you count the little-known Tin Machine live album (it exists, and has the embarrassing name, Oy Vey, Baby).

Black Tie, White Noise, Bowie’s first post-Tin Machine album briefly supplanted the Tin Machine albums as his best since, Scary Monsters. The Wikipedia entry for Scary Monsters, notes, “Well-regarded later efforts such as Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) were cited as ‘the best album since Scary Monsters’” and then itself cites reviews of each that used the device.

Until fairly late in his career, Bowie seemed loath to acknowledge that anything he already did was any good. I mentioned a quote about him saying that Young Americans was the only album of his that he found “likable,” which he said in 1978. Well, the previous year he said that he didn’t think his entire back catalog was “likable,” and the year before that he said Young Americans was “unlistenable.” When promoting Let’s Dance, in 1983, he agreed with his interviewer who said of his previous albums, “we used to rush out, buy them on the first day they camped out, play them rotten for six months and then…” Bowie said of the albums that are now thought of as mainstays, ‘they don’t have longevity. They’re not classic statements that go on through the years.”

Again and again, Bowie would speak to the need to start over. His stylistic challenges were as much a statement of frustration about his last work as expressions of fear of getting stale. He seemed to seek affirmation from the notion of being rediscovered. In 1983, he described teenage fans who just discovered Diamond Dogs, “I found it delightful. I just wondered if they’d— I guess they’d just have to— think of it in a contemporary situation. But I don’t know how the music seems to them. Does it sound new-ish?” Years later, in 2000, he made a similar observation, “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ninety’s generation, but then they don’t know the early stuff. I think it’s a surprise when they hear them all at once and think, ‘Did he write that?’ I know that because…when I do, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ the amount of kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’”

I included that extended quote in part because it’s funny, but also because it’s a stretch to think of it as sincere. Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” gave it new life, and Bowie started performing it live again after it had long-ceased being part of his playlist. But Kurt Cobain clearly identified it as a Bowie song on the Nirvana record that made it famous for the new generation. It’s hard to imagine that “kids” missed that part, or that they would even have the opportunity to come up to Bowie after a concert (one of his concerts, which they would have chosen to see presumably because they knew something about Bowie to want to see him).

Bowie never wanted to rest on his laurels. In that one respect, the Bowie of 2000 had not changed much since the Bowie of 1983. What had changed was how the world reacted to Bowie. Bowie seemed to delight at the idea that albums like, Low were commercially unsuccessful (which wasn’t exactly true even at the time). Reviewers liked to play along because they felt good about having the special insight to recognize it (and others) as secret works of genius.

The one period that, in the later part of his career, he would acknowledge as weak was the mid-80s, when he’d claim that his sin was trying to please his audience. At various points, Bowie had expressed an interest in Gnosticism, and he too wanted the excellence of his art to be secret knowledge that would be discovered by those in the know.

The trick really stopped working in the mid-80s, but that period corresponded with Bowie’s peak stardom. The secret virtues of Tin Machine— which I still like— remained too obscure for even the hippest of Gnostics, and by the time of Black Tie, White Noise, Bowie was a has-been. But Bowie kept making music. Although each successive record became his best since Scary Monsters, none of them had that album’s staying power. But that they were at least well-received at the time of their release generated enough good-will for Bowie to establish himself as one of rock music’s elder statesmen. One 2000 interview claimed, “With Bowie you get the feeling you’re watching the new Sinatra.” By that, the interviewer (Dylan Jones) meant that Bowie’s concerts remained special, though the faint praise assessed on his newer albums was that they would be “better than either Sinatra or Presley[‘s] were in their dotage.”

The very last interview in the book, from 2003, reverent of Bowie largely because of his status, nonetheless asserted that “the new David Bowie was not as fascinating as the old one.”

Without genuinely new Bowie albums on the horizon (plenty of live albums, outtakes, compilations etc. will continue to be released), all of Bowie’s albums are old ones now. And it’s true, by and large his best— or at least many of my favorite— are from the 1970s (as well as, you guessed it, Scary Monsters, which was from 1980). But he continued to make good music. His 80s output was not nearly as bad as even he later seemed to suggest. Not nearly as bad? Some of it was great. Some of the music he made in the 90s and beyond is among my favorite. The event that was Blackstar, which hadn’t happened by the time Bowie on Bowie was published— still seems like a staggering work of genius, six years after its release.

So, after 1980, Bowie would never make another Scary Monsters. But Bowie never liked re-treading the same ground or overplaying his hand. That he reached a level of acceptance that it was OK to play some of his hits at concerts was good for the fans, but so too was his continued experimentation and ongoing output. The worst period of Bowie’s half-century career was the decade that he didn’t make new music. When he resumed in 2013 with, The Next Day, what the reviews should have said was that the new album was his best since his previous one.*

*(2003’s Reality).

Got it?> Come back on Saturday for the Sean Eagan interview!

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