The Return of the Thin White Duke

THE return of David Bowie with a new single on his 66th birthday was completely unexpected.

‘Where Are We Now?’ appeared on Bowie’s website yesterday, along with the announcement of a new album, The Next Day, in March.

Bowie has been silent for ten years, but his every appearance in public has been considered newsworthy: in October, he made the papers for no other reason than that he was photographed in the street in New York.

‘Where Are We Now?’ is an elegiac piano ballad, produced by Tony Visconti, with whom Bowie did some of his best work in the 1970s. It name-checks streets around Berlin, where Bowie and Visconti recorded the critically acclaimed trilogy — the albums Low, Lodger and Heroes — from 1977-79. Bowie lived in Berlin with Iggy Pop in those days; they got about town by posing as house-painters on bicycles.

Visconti is one of several celebrated Bowie collaborators. Another is Brian Eno, the synthesiser wizard with whom he wrote some of his best-known songs, including Heroes and I’m Afraid Of Americans. Bowie’s most revered guitarist side-kick was the late Mick Ronson, who played on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Bowie also worked closely with Reeves Gabrels in the 1980s and ’90s.

Bowie’s retirement came after a heart attackin Germany in 2004. He was touring the album Reality, and had been in Dublin just months before for two gigs at the Point (now the O2). In Dublin, Bowie had seemed in the best of form, playing songs from throughout his career. “Tiocfaidh ár lá, Baile Átha Cliath,” he announced to the audience. If it was a surprise to hear the enigmatic rock star spouting Irish, it was more surprising again to hear him use a slogan associated with the Provisional IRA. Bowie’s guitarist at the time was a Dubliner named Gerry Leonard. Later in the gig, Bowie thanked the crowd. “Go raibh míle maith agat,” he said, before correcting his use of the singular. “No, no, it’s ‘go raibh míle maith agaibh’.”

Bowie is a restlessly inventive artist, albeit one with an ear for a commercial tune. His greatest mainstream success was the 1983 album Let’s Dance, produced by Nile Rodgers, of Chic, which spawned the singles ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘China Girl’ and ‘Modern Love’. ‘Where Are We Now?’ is hardly a return to the form of the 1970s and early ’80s — it most recalls 1999’s album, Hours — but it signals that Bowie is still working. Bowie last performed live in 2006, when he guested with Arcade Fire, and David Gilmore, of Pink Floyd. Whether he will tour to support the new album is not yet known. Anyone who attended those triumphant gigs at the Point, in 2003, can only hope he does.

Marc O’Sullivan

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