Where Are We Now?

time

Where Are We Now?

The Wall was probably the most famous structure that will ever stand in Berlin…and if a monument can be decommissioned, that is apparently what happened to it.

Brian Ladd.

We Were Like a Museum Exhibit.

Title of a Wolf Vostell 1965 collage.

Wedding

geister

An older man, wearing a grey topcoat and knit cap, is walking through Berlin one winter morning. If you were to follow him, he would appear to be rambling for no obvious purpose, towards no apparent destination; just wending through neighborhoods, sometimes doubling back.

But if you were to watch his progress from the air, it would seem, over time, as though he was slowly stitching a pattern across the heart of the old city, making a fresh suture over an old scar.

Pankow

Berlin,_Grenzübergang_Bornholmer_Straße

We lived in a vacuum over a void.

Peter Schneider, on West Berlin.

Nothing was asked of West Berlin “beyond its own complicity in surviving.

Jane Kramer.

On the sunless, modestly-cold morning of the 8th of January, 2013, I walked the dog, made coffee, ate breakfast, checked the laptop. The blog, though not updated for a week, had some 20 new comments overnight; the twitter had at least as many notices; my mailbox was overflowing. I could only think the worst, and said to the dog: “Oh no, is he dead? And on his birthday, too.”

As it turned out, he had risen. At 5 AM GMT, Bowie’s website uploaded the video of “Where Are We Now?”, with the notice that one could buy the track on iTunes, as well as pre-order a new, unanticipated album. By the time the British workday started, the news had hit every media outlet, which gave Bowie’s return the treatment usually reserved for royal births and divorces. Each longitude of the Western Hemisphere woke up to the news in turn.

“It was his idea to just announce the album on his birthday and just watch the thing avalanche,” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. Bowie and Visconti had done a countdown in December, sending each other emails with subject lines like “two weeks eight hours.” At midnight in New York, Visconti sat at his computer to see “Where Are We Now?” pop up in the iTunes store. He’d produced the thing but couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It took about 15 minutes, he recalled, before fans realized what was happening and the first “holy shit!” posts appeared on message boards.

Bowie’s was among the first of the “surprise” album releases of the 2010s (MBV came later the same month, Beyoncé at the end of the year). Like the others (and a precursor, Radiohead’s The King of Limbs), The Next Day was a catalog artist gaming a broken system. Avoid the pointless hype cycle and throw a new album out into the world, generating scads of free press by leveraging the reputation that your former labels paid for.

Bowie pulled off his surprise because he only used musicians whom he knew and could trust (even then, he had them sign non-disclosure agreements) and he ran a tight ship: just Corinne Schwab and Bill Zysblat for logistics and finance; no office managers, no PR staff. At Sony, with whom he had a distribution relationship, he had no A&R supervision. The label was in the dark: Sony president Rob Stringer only learned Bowie had cut a new album in December 2012, when Bowie brought him into a studio to hear tracks. “Stringer said, ‘what about the PR campaign?’ and David said, ‘there is no PR campaign. We’re just going to drop it on 8 January’,” Visconti recalled. And so they did.

Weißensee

Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010.

I became a rock star. It’s what I do. It’s not my whole life.

Bowie, to a friend in Berlin, ca. 1977.

It could have been the beginning of a really boring career. You know, the typical rock star life cycle. So fortunately for me my right lung collapsed…I felt a great sense of relief, as if once again I’d been left off the hook.

Brian Eno, to Ian MacDonald, 1977.

He said: I know what it’s like to be dead. He said…did he? Oh that’s very nice indeed.

John Lennon, demo, 1966.

Of the “lost years” between Bowie’s heart operation in July 2004 and the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, many know little. He had stopped emailing a lot of friends after his heart surgery, even Visconti: in late 2006, Visconti was startled when Bowie popped in during a Dean and Britta session in NYC (“as much as I wanted him to sing on a track, I was too shocked to make my mouth work“). In the late 2000s, however, Bowie and Visconti began having semi-monthly lunches, during which Bowie said he had no interest in writing new music.

It wasn’t as if Bowie was in hiding (ever so often, the paparazzi would nab a fresh photo of a downtown-walking Bowie, armed with ubiquitous laptop bag). He cut the occasional guest-vocal (see the past two months’ entries) and even was in a studio in 2008 to record new vocals and overdubs for a revision of “Time Will Crawl.” He issued a statement praising Barack Obama’s victory; he spoke to the press as late as 2010, telling the Observer what allegedly was on his iPod (Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” and John Adams’ “El Nino,” among others); in a New York Times profile of Iman, he said “I’m not thinking of touring. I’m comfortable.”

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As the empty years went on, the Bowie enterprise began to seem like a carnival which had shuttered for the season but would never open again. Fan websites were reduced to announcing the occasional reissue, or the death of yet another old Bowie friend or collaborator (Lesley Duncan, Natasha Kornilof, Derek Fearnley, Guy Pelleart), or the doings of Bowie tribute bands. “I really don’t know what he’s up to at the moment,” his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey said in early 2010. “I wish I could…I just hope, as much as anyone else, as a fan of music, that he returns.”

Rumors circulated that Bowie was ailing, that he’d contracted terminal cancer. It got to the point where Noel Gallagher lamented in 2011 that “I know [Bowie] hasn’t been very well, but we need him,” and where Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas began preparing a Bowie obituary in late June 2012, after Grantland‘s editor got a solid tip that Bowie was on his deathbed.

Prenzlauer Berg

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Almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

As it turned out, he rather liked being dead.

For all intents and purposes, he had stopped being David Bowie. He was just David Jones, a wealthy late-middle-aged landowner, art collector, expatriate and dad, gassing on to his wife and daughter about whatever history or biography book he was reading (it’s a near-universal rule that by the age of 60, all men become bores about history) and watching police shows, whether American (The Shield), British (Foyle’s War) or French (Spiral).

It was as though he’d decommissioned himself. Here was a man who still led a public life—attending various charity galas with Iman—but who was no longer public. His biographer Paul Trynka, whose book published in 2010, speculated that Bowie had pulled a slow-motion disappearing act in the 2000s, and had retired without letting anyone know. His absence felt louder each year; his blank refusal to play the game anymore could seem an affront to some fans. Bowie was always supposed to be there, on the margins or in the wings, reacting, stealing, sometimes embarrassing himself, sometimes creating the future. Then he just stopped.

Until something brought him back. In early autumn 2010, while in London recording the Kaiser Chiefs’ The Future Is Medieval, Visconti heard from Bowie out of the blue. “He said, when you get back, do you fancy doing some demos with me?” Visconti told the Daily Telegraph. “There was no preamble, no warning. It was really weird.”

“Schtum” was the subject line of an email Bowie sent the guitarist Gerry Leonard (it was a German-sounding word meaning “keep mum” whose origins lay in the criminal world of Fifties Britain—it’s the sort of word you’d expect Bowie to use in an email). Like Visconti, Leonard had no clue that Bowie was considering making a record. “I was like, whoa! he’s going to do something?

And Sterling Campbell, the last of Bowie’s contacts, said “my relationship with David has always been like this—I just get a call out of nowhere and it’s great if it works out.” So he was used to sudden changes of face.From what I understand, he didn’t even wanna think about music for a number of years,” he told the NME. “Then all of a sudden, he’s got 20 songs he wants to record.”

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For a week in November 2010, Bowie, Leonard, Visconti and Campbell got together at 6/8 Studios in the East Village (they used Studio A, which you can rent for $50/hour today). For the first four days, Bowie brought in demos he’d made on eight- and 16-track digital recorders at home.

Because as it turned out, David Jones hadn’t shaken the habit of writing songs. To Visconti, “they were obviously things that had built up over the past 10 years, sketches he’d had all along,” complete with ideas for basslines and drum patterns. (“It seemed evident that he had been writing a lot—[it was as if] he was pulling ideas for songs from a hat,” Leonard concurred). Bowie would play a demo, had Leonard (back in his bandleader role from the Reality tour) transcribe a chord progression, and then asked the group to play their interpretation of his fledgling song.

On the last day, in a studio described variously as “a matchbox” and “a small grimy room,” they cut about a dozen full-band demos (Bowie played keyboards and sang guide vocals, mainly wordless melodies) on what Visconti called “a basic Pro Tools rig.” Bowie packed up, said his goodbyes. No one heard from him for another four months.

Mitte

IslBG

I wasn’t [in Berlin] for very long, only four months; one whole spring. But it was crazy. Really crazy. It was like a film of Fritz Lang’s. You had the feeling that all of life was being directed by Lang…There was a black cloud of hatred over the whole east end of the city…You felt the catastrophe coming.

Paul Bowles.

After the danger dissipated in Berlin, nothing was left.

Klaus Schultz.

At some point, he decided the demos were worth trying on a broader canvas. Bowie wanted to use the same crew to make backing tracks for a possible album, but with Campbell on tour with the B-52s in spring 2011, his Nineties drummer, Zachary Alford, instead got the nod. As did Gail Ann Dorsey. She hadn’t played bass on any Bowie album since Toy, in part because the producer was also an ace bassist, but Visconti told Dorsey that he wanted to concentrate on producing and not have to work in the rhythm section, too. David Torn, the “atmospheric” element of the Heathen and Reality albums, also came in.

Right at the start, the secret nearly leaked. Someone at the originally-booked NYC studio tipped off a freelance photographer, who called Bowie’s office asking to shoot the sessions. This prompted an eleventh-hour relocation to the Magic Shop on Crosby Street (conveniently, less than a ten-minute walk from Bowie’s home). Visconti was cagy to the studio about who he was recording, and Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal said “it’s not an exaggeration [that] we didn’t know what was going on until the day Bowie showed up.” (One assumes Bowie would have preferred to use his favorite NYC studio, Looking Glass Studios, but it had closed in 2009.) They would call Bowie’s project “The Secret” at the Magic Shop: “Is The Secret in today?”

Bowie and his musicians began recording on 3 May 2011, for about two weeks, in what would be “Block One” of the Next Day sessions. The players were all old hands: he knew their styles and what to expect from them (though he urged Dorsey to play fretless bass for the first time). It suggests he realized the new songs weren’t that dissimilar from his Heathen/Reality compositions, and that his new album could be like one he might have made in 2005. After all, he’d told both Leonard and Campbell during the Reality tour’s last leg that he was considering hustling the band into a studio right after the tour ended, in the hopes of cutting a road-hardened album like Earthling. Fate intervened.

The Next Day would be the most tentative, and the slowest-paced, album that he had ever made. Bowie kept stressing that the sessions were only an experiment, one he could well scrap. It was similar to how he’d pitched Low to his musicians in 1976. Yet Low had come together in about a month. The Next Day would take two years.

Gasmaske-Plakat-1979-

Alford described the sessions as being “matter of fact.” Bowie came in each morning, played them a home demo, then played the song’s full-band demo, then had the players start recording. (They were encouraged to ask him questions: the sessions had a seminar feel, with Bowie as a professor emeritus working with some former grad students.) There were no more than five takes for each song; they got through about two tracks a day.

They worked in the Magic Shop’s “live” room, Studio A, with no separation between instruments, barring some amp baffling. Bowie set up at a Baldwin piano, creating a work-station at which he could play a Korg Trinity (as on Reality), strum his old 12-string acoustic or use a digital mixer which he used to reference demos. Engineer Mario McNulty said Bowie and Visconti wanted a treated sound at the point of recording, so that in-studio playback would “sound like a record.” (This was Bowie’s long-preferred method—he’d been taken aback in early Young Americans sessions when he heard his untreated voice on tape for the first time in years). So McNulty, using the studio’s custom Neve 80 series wraparound 56-input console, applied EQ in each stereo channel and added generous compression on the vocal mikes, bass, guitar and drum tracks.

“Block One” produced about 20 tracks, of a variety of styles: Alford recalled cutting a “straight up country song,” while another was based on a blues riff, though the players were given the Eno-like instruction “not to make it sound like a blues.” Neither Bowie or Visconti were interested aping the sound of contemporary records (perhaps for the good: Bowie was talking up Mumford and Sons in the demo sessions), using instead for sonic context the Bowie back catalog and never-released outtakes, particularly from Lodger (see the upcoming “Born In a UFO”). Nine tracks from the session wound up on The Next Day or its bonus releases, but in May 2011, they were still only pieces of an ongoing experiment.

Tiergarten

wallover

So began the album’s desultory creation. Bowie would take away tapes, book the occasional overdub session, then go away again. He visited Leonard in Woodstock, NY, that summer and the two of them did some songwriting (coming up with “Boss of Me” and “I’ll Take You There” after Leonard scrambled to find a Roland TR-808 drum machine).

Around September or October 2011, Bowie organized another rhythm section date (call it “Block Two”) at the Magic Shop. As Dorsey was now touring with Lenny Kravitz, the storied bassist Tony Levin came in play with Leonard, Torn and Alford.

It was much the same mood as the spring session: listen to demos, take notes, play a few takes, “I’ll call you later.” (The tracks getting their start in this block included “Where Are We Now?,” “Boss of Me,” “I’d Rather Be High” and “God Bless the Girl.”)

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Around year-end 2011, there was a notable ebb in the album’s (already-tenuous) progress. Bowie was slowly working on lyrics and he’d spend over a year, in fits and starts, on his vocals. “In the beginning he was finding his voice,” Visconti said. “He’s not an opera singer, he doesn’t practice every day.”

Both Dorsey and Leonard said that around this time, they feared that Bowie might just deep-six the album, and keep silent for who knows how many more years. Brian Thorn, the Magic Shop’s assistant engineer, said “I had no idea if the album would even be released. I was prepared to sit on it for as long as I needed to.” Rosenthal summed up the general mood. “From beginning to end, this has not been a typical music business project. This has been like an art project that he’s created and is executing upon us all. I don’t think any of us really believed it was going to come out until we saw the song online.

If there had been a period of indecision, a turning point came when Bowie called up Earl Slick to do what he’d done since 1974: add some “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar parts. Contacted in May, Slick turned up at the Magic Shop in July 2012. “He never let me hear the demos,” Slick told Rock et Folk. “I played where he needed me. I always worked like that with him.”

Along with overdubbing guitar on the likes of “Dirty Boys,” Slick also helped cut some fresh songs on the spot with Visconti on bass and the now-returned Sterling Campbell. This last session (call it “Block Three”) was the start of the likes of “Valentine’s Day” and “Born In a UFO.”

So after two years of sporadic sessions, Bowie and Visconti had about 30 tracks. Those still needing work were earmarked as future B-sides or bonus releases (most of which have come out by now). Having winnowed the prospective track list down to 20, Bowie played with the sequencing for months, pulling “God Bless the Girl” on and off and on again (he finally slotted it as a bonus track on the Japanese issue).

The final sequence wound up being a three-part movement (paralleling its three-block creation). Tracks 1 to 6 were the “hits,” 7-11 the weird shit; the remainder was a bitter old man’s coda.

Kreuzberg

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Each Berlin is worlds distant from, and a stranger to, the other…indeed I have to admit that the Berlin of which I speak is actually not really Berlin anymore.

Georg Hermann, Kubinke, 1910.

Bowie came in one day and said, “I wrote a song about Berlin.” Visconti recalled.

He’d been kicking it around for some time, as Dorsey, who didn’t play in the song’s backing track sessions, recalled Bowie saying early on that he “had this idea of writing about his time in Berlin. That it was a very intense time for him.”

“Bowie in Berlin” had become, over the decades, among his most enduring characters, though at the time he’d taken pains to say that he was no longer playing a role. The rising critical eminence of the “Berlin” trilogy had wound up creating a myth as vivid as Ziggy Stardust’s.

It was Bowie singing “Heroes” at Hansa Tonstudio (which he’d portentously renamed “Hansa By The Wall” on the LP sleeve), setting off three microphones when moving to his apocalyptic register, while East German guards paced in their tower on the Wall. It was Bowie living with Iggy Pop on Hauptstraße, swapping clothes; Bowie biking around the city, unnoticed or ignored; making paintings of Pop and Yukio Mishima; dressing and wearing his hair as if he was an actor playing Christopher Isherwood in 1929; taking his breakfasts in the gay cafe down the street. Days at the Brücke-Museum, nights at the Dschungel or Chez Romy Haag.

The city was his sickbed, hospital, recovery ward, detox mansion; Berlin was where he went to vanish, and where he was found on the street seemingly every night, sometimes drinking himself oblivious in a bar. His estranged wife Angela thought it all ridiculous: he and Iggy dressing up like bohemian painters, or recreating scenes from Jules et Jim with Corinne Schwab; his label RCA found the work he made there indulgent, baffling and poor-selling, and wondered if he was sabotaging his career to reduce his ex-manager’s take of LP royalties.

But Berlin was reality, Bowie said, where America and Britain were fictions. John Lennon had once claimed that rock ‘n’ roll was real and everything else was unreal. Instead, Bowie had found rock ‘n’ roll to be the most unreal thing of all, a poison: Berlin was where he got free of it. He came out of the city in 1979 far different from the desperate man who’d taken refuge there in 1976. “David aged about 20 years in Berlin,” Mick Ronson once said.

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He travels all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it, because he doesn’t want you to,” Visconti said of Bowie today. An obvious question: did Bowie go back to Berlin in the late 2000s? Walk through Schöneberg again, visit Hansa, catch a train at Postdamer Platz? Stay in the hotel on Nürnberger Straße which was once the Dschungel? After all, his nostalgic drives through Brixton and Bromley in the early Nineties had sparked The Buddha of Suburbia. Did a similar visit inspire “Where Are We Now?”

Another speculation (offered by Momus): did Bowie and Visconti ever consider making his comeback record at Hansa? It would have made the perfect last turn of the circle, a lost man returning to the city he’d tried to get lost in, and maybe the symbolism was a bit too perfect. Plus, keeping the secret from a city of Germans would’ve been harder than doing so with a few New York engineers and his old touring band. After all, it was getting harder to go missing in Berlin these days.

Freidrichshain

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Thomas Kunja, an East Berliner who escaped to West Berlin several years ago and now distributes Electrolux vacuum cleaners, knows exactly what they’ll buy. “A video recorder–half already have color TVs,” says Kunja. “And everybody will take a trip.” Why? “What do you do when you get out of jail? You run. You have to prove you’re really out with a trip west. After that, people need everything: a decent car, decent kitchen stuff, a decent rug. If only 1 percent of them want a decent vacuum cleaner, I’m going to be rich.”

Newsweek, “The Wealth of a Nation,”  July 1990.

One night in 1997, I was at a party on the Upper West Side in NYC. A German man, standing alone, was looking offended by how dull the party was. I began talking to him, said I’d always wanted to go to Berlin. “Berlin?” he said, with some disgust. “Munich is where it is now. Berlin is dead! Dead!”

The Berlin of “Heroes” is deep in the grave now. The Wall is gone except for a few scruffily-maintained parks. The old city districts have been consolidated; some streets have new names. The battered, half-empty neighborhoods are being gentrified. Berlin’s even back to being a capital: Germany once again claiming the alien city on the Spree as its centerpiece, despite the fact that many Germans always have found Berlin a bit suspect, and some back in the early Cold War had wished the Russians had taken the whole place.

Agata Pyzik wrote in her Poor But Sexy that “Berlin is an Eastern city, by geography, spirit, architecture and expression. Yet it remains half-Western by politics and history.” During the Cold War, divided Berlin was a stage-set battlefield, the front line where the West and East sported their colors. The city itself was an island, a prison (West Berlin the little prison surrounded by the big prison), a mental ward. Berlin lived on its nerves, a city “so restless at night that even the animals in the zoo pace around,” as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson once said of it.

So where was it now? A creaky voice starts recounting a story, but it’s not much of a story—he forgets where he’s going after a line. “Had to get the train from Postdamer Platz,” he begins, not quite getting the accent right. A tourist, maybe. “You never knew...that I could do that,” with an air of faint amazement. It suggests he may be singing to a ghost, someone who didn’t outlive the Wall. The Postdamer Platz of “Heroes”-era Berlin was a wasteland, a stopped portal—the train station was a ghost stop on the S-bahn, a station that you only saw in passing (and which few East Germans ever saw). And today you can go underground and catch an eastbound train without giving it a second thought. Tens of thousands of people a day in Berlin perform what would have been impossible in 1989.

The man rummages up other names, as if seeing if anything rings a bell: the ghost’s not talking. The lost Dschungel club on Nürnberger Straße; even the department store KaDeWe (which would be like writing a song about post 9/11 New York and talking about Macy’s).

And 20,000 East Germans crossing Bösebrücke (again, it’s a tourist’s formal language—a German likely would have said Bornholmerstrasse) one autumn night in 1989, fingers crossed, fearing it might be a trap, that the guards will open fire on them. But no, out into the West they go, puncturing a hole in the Wall, soon followed by other holes, soon followed by no Wall at all.

Could it really have fallen apart so easily? The end of divided Berlin was like the end of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice standing up and saying “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and the Queen of Hearts howling in paper outrage. Maybe all that you ever needed to do was walk across the bridge, fingers crossed.

Treptow

Machen auf Demo

In the bars and clubs of [1987] West Berlin things felt relentlessly trendy. I kept running into Blixa Bargeld everywhere. I remember going to a club (I think it was called the Beehive) and seeing people with miniature record players strapped to their heads. I’d never seen people that self-consciously Dada before anywhere!

Momus.

The writer Christopher Isherwood went back to Berlin once after the war, in 1952, “to do one of those Berlin-revisited things for the Observer.” The city was still in shambles. “Everything was very much smashed up. They simply pushed the rubble to the sides of the streets. I wonder what became of that rubble?

The rubble was the pulverized bits of Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin, all the cornices and stoops and windowpanes and picture frames of the lost city of Isherwood, Brecht, Sally Bowles and the Landauers, of a city bombed to pieces during the war. The detritus was swept up, dumped in piles, was carted off to form three great hills in the outskirts of Berlin. In the Grunewald Forest, the highest pile became Teufelsberg, on which the Germans planted trees and shrubs and built a ski jump. The Americans built a radar station atop it.

It’s how Berlin has always adapted: junk what’s been ruined, build over the rest. Most cities in the West would have likely tried to preserve the Wall, turn it into some city-long memorial park. The Germans chipped it down, hauled it off, sold some bits, threw some in the garbage. Berlin seems impervious to nostalgia, so it’s an inspired setting for a nostalgic Bowie song. Walking the dead, he sings, but he might as well have said walking on the dead, because the city has likely paved over thousands of bodies.

My friend Michael Dumiak, who’s from South Carolina, has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. “You hear lots of Spanish and Italian and American English in the streets these days.The Bowie / Pop myth is strong here, but he wasn’t here that long, maybe didn’t need to, they already loved him so much here (see Christiane F.) I guess probably they wouldn’t bug him; it was a whole island city tense with military and full of arty misfits. And cheap. The place does make an impression on you. They’re gradually repainting everything—check it out while you still can!”

Or as regular commenter “Crayon to Crayon,” another current Berlin resident, says: “It’s an amazing city to be poor in. And it feels like you have far more freedom than in any other big city I’ve lived in…There is a palpable feeling that things are changing slowly for the worse as developers get their hands on more of the city and rents go up. But it is still 20 years ahead/behind of the rest of Germany and, say, London or Paris. I’m not planning on leaving any time soon.”

Neukölln

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Even at the demo stage, Gerry Leonard was struck by a song known only as “067,” the file’s name on Bowie’s digital recorder.

There are beautiful changes to it,” he said. “He had these chords on his keyboard. David is an amazing writer, but he’s not a schooled guy, he just goes by his ear.” Talking of song structures, Bowie would typically say “the middle bit” or “the other bit” when referring to a bridge or chorus.

Leonard took Bowie’s keyboard progression and transferred it to guitar, writing down chords as he went. There was a verse that slowly circled, like a man walking back and forth along a street—Fmaj7 (“had to get”) to Dm/G (“Potsdamer”). An odd seesaw movement—Db/Eb (“never knew that”), Eb/Db (“that I could”)—that hints at a vault into an Ab major key but instead sinks back to the home chord, F, now with a C bass note (“do that”). The verse sags off, but grandly: G/C (“just walking the”), Ebm/C (“dead”), closing on a C7 chord, the dominant chord of the song’s F major key, soon resolved by another return home to F.

Then there was a simple refrain, just descending F-Em-Dm-C. Another verse, but cut shorter; another refrain, but now opening up, blossoming into a lengthy outro that slightly altered the descending set of chords to F-Dm-C/E-C, repeating again and again to the fade.

It was a typical Bowie construction, as the song is odder than it may first appear to the ear. Its progression is a slow, listless struggle between F major and C major, with the former seeming to rule the verses and the latter the refrains, though their claims are far from settled. By contrast there’s a severity to its structure: a sense of not wanting to waste time. Take the slam right back to the verse after the refrain, where the ear expects a solo or a recapitulation of the intro sequence, or the no-nonsense move to the outro after the second refrain.

Bowie and Visconti kept the track sparse, particularly in the context of the other Next Day tracks: it’s just carried by Leonard’s lead guitar, Bowie’s piano and synthesizer lines (and some Henry Hey piano overdubs in the outro), Levin’s bass and Alford’s drums. At first just Alford’s drum pattern keeps the song moving forward, as Leonard and Bowie augment chords and Levin is a torpid foundation. The song only takes flight as it ends—Alford shifts to a martial snare pattern and Leonard starts to elaborate on pieces of Bowie’s vocal melody, arpeggiating chords and then moving down his guitar neck, wringing higher and higher-pitched notes, slowly weaving a line that’s more mournful than Bowie’s vocal. Words fail to do it justice: listen here.

Tempelhof

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People think you have to remove everything to make a nice habitat. This is not the best idea. The grasshopper likes the concrete here.

Ingo Kowarick, on Templehofer Field.

“Where Are We Now?” made an odd choice for a opening single, Visconti thought. He and other players took pains in pre-release interviews to stress how anomalous the song was, and that much of the rest of the album was uptempo, guitar-fattened and loud.

Issuing this as the first “new” Bowie song in a decade was a feinting maneuver, and perhaps even something of a macabre joke, much as how Bowie showed up at a 2005 awards show dressed as if he’d been in a car crash. If the world believed Bowie to be on death’s door, well, here he was croaking this somber song about his lost youth, as if he was dictating a will. Final curtain stuff. Yet even the fragility of his voice was an old trick. “That’s a vulnerable voice he has used time and time again,” Visconti noted, offering “Fantastic Voyage” as an earlier example. “It’s part of his technique, to sing that way. He put that voice on like he’s vulnerable, but he’s not frail.”

The ploy worked, for some. “Elegiac” was common in reviews, e.g.: “the only one that moved me was the elegiac “Where Are We Now?”, which has a haunting Berlin cabaret feel to it,” wrote Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, upon hearing the album. “It sounded good, but it also sounded right for a 66-year-old man. If you’re still trying to rock as hard at 66 as you did at 26 and even 36, you’re not maturing… not every genre is equally suited to one’s maturity. It’s just that Bowie sounds so much more — what’s the word? — credible on the brooding, pensive “Where Are We Now?” than on the harder stuff on the record.

“Where Are We Now?” is the song Bowie is supposed to be singing at age 66. By this age, you are supposed to be left stranded in time, to be burdened by great sacks of memory. It’s what the young expect of the old; it’s the task they charge the old with. In a world where the past is considered an embarrassment, the old are left as the past’s sad representatives, sexless and voiceless ambassadors, fit for the young to ignore. “When they die, we will move forward,” the young say. The old die, and we don’t.

So there’s an irony in the song. Its lament is removed, abstract; its narrator isn’t “Bowie” as much as it’s the voice of a man whose Berlin memories seem to have been derived from a few old Time magazines and Wikipedia searches. Bowie took the title from his son’s movie Moon: there, “Where Are We Now?” is the start of a promotional film celebrating a beautiful future. In the song, Bowie asks a question he doesn’t answer, only offering the beautifully Zen the moment you know, you know you know.

The promise of the outro opens up the song, Bowie offering a promise of endurance against the fading memories of the verses. As long as there’s sun…as long as there’s fire. Yet Bowie never finishes the phrases. As long as these endure…well, what else will? Me and you, he finally says, but we’re  not going to last much longer. Even the elements fade. One day the sun will wink out, and fire (usually a man-made thing, after all) will have gone well before that. A man looks at the ground and up in the sky for something that’ll be there after he’s gone. Yet the more he thinks about it, he’s not quite sure what will stand. The Wall was made of concrete, and look, they broke it down with chisels and hammers.

Schöneberg

berln

All that was left was to shoot a video. Bowie chose Tony Oursler, whom he’d worked with in the Nineties, and it was filmed in Oursler’s New York studio. In a cluttered loft, Bowie’s and Jacqueline Humphries’ faces are video-projected onto two lumpen mannequins sitting on a pommel horse, while playing on a screen behind them are film clips of contemporary Berlin—Haupstrasse, KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag. Bowie’s face looks like a sad turtle’s. He’s still lip-syncing, though it seems like his head’s been stuck in a fishbowl; he comes off like some misshapen laboratory transplant who’s still valiantly following directions. Humphries (an artist Bowie admired, as well as being Oursler’s wife) was chosen in part because she resembled Corinne Schwab, who might as well have been conjoined to Bowie during the Berlin years.

Bowie came up with the entire concept: the linked dummies, the piles of junk, what should be playing on the screen. “It was a crystal vision of what it was going to look like,” Oursler said. “It was really his conception. I was completely flattered that he wanted to come to my cave and fulfill this.”

Towards the end of the clip, you see the “real” Bowie at last, trim and impassive, wearing a “Song of Norway” t-shirt (perhaps referencing a film that his longago girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, had acted in), watching the apparatus at work. It’s a visual analogue for the entire making of The Next Day: Bowie, having sorted through piles of discards (like the rubble of postwar Berlin), has finally set up a dummy figure and screens his “public” memories behind it, like he’s got an installation at the Whitney. It’s as if to say: here, this is your “Bowie” now, so take him: I’m staying on the sidelines.

Bowie now has “this kind of cross between a John Hurt look and like George Smiley…a wounded arty kind of anonymous spook look,” as Dumiak told me, which I found an inspired observation. Bowie as the spy who stayed out in the cold, someone like Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker, an old British spy who’s become a man of honor just by standing still while the world corroded around him.

Hauptstraße 155

iggybowie77berlin

Things go on and become other things. The whole character of the country has changed beyond recognition since my childhood. One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless. What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead. The future will be infinitely “worse” than the present; and in that future, the future will be immeasurably “worse” than the future that we can see. Naturally.

Paul Bowles.

It is the evening of the 8th of January, 1977. Bowie and Iggy Pop, Romy Haag and Corinne Schwab are in a West Berlin nightclub to celebrate Bowie’s 30th birthday.

A few photographs, taken by Andrew Kent, are all that remain of that night. Bowie and Iggy, as often in Berlin, sport near-identical outfits; Haag is the most beautiful woman in the room. The look of the club, the Sally Bowles costumes of the waitresses, even the texture and lighting of the photographs, all seem meant to invoke a common memory of decadent Weimar cabaret.

But the expressions on Bowie and Schwab and Pop are something else. They look gleeful, even goofy; they seem like kids on holiday, or students taking a semester abroad and seeing how far their dollars and pounds will go in a battered city.

A German interviewer, around the turn of the century, asked Bowie where he’d lived in Berlin, and Bowie said immediately: “Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg.” The interviewer was startled. “You still remember it after 25 years?.” “I will never forget it,” Bowie said to him. “They were very important years.”

Haag, upon hearing “Where Are They Now?,” said Bowie sounded homesick. He’d only lived in Berlin for little more than a year, once you account for his tours and travels in the late Seventies. But Berlin was the place he’d run away to, and it was the city he had to leave when he had to get back to work, to get things done. Berlin was the last place he was young.

db13

It is the morning of the 8th of January 2013. David Bowie is 66, and has released a new song.

********

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop and Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2013 as an MP3 file (886443826403) (UK #6).

Sources: Over 30 articles and TV/radio interviews provided information and quotes for this piece; the most valuable included Alexis Petridis and Kate Connolly’s features in The Guardian (12 January 2013), Andy Greene’s interviews of most of The Next Day musicians for Rolling Stone in January-February 2013 and Jerome Soligny’s similar work in Rock et Folk (March 2013), Barry Nicolson’s in-depth chronology/interviews for the NME (2 March 2013), Gerry Leonard’s wonderful songwriting seminar at Xmusic in Dublin, 31 March 2013; Simon Goddard and David Buckley’s pieces in the March 2013 issues of, respectively, Q and Mojo.

I’m indebted to the personal recollections of past and present Berliners Momus, Crayon and, especially, Dumiak, to whom this entry is dedicated.

dbhansa77

Photos: top to bottom: Dennis Skley, “Time Isn’t Passing,” 2012; Michael Dumiak, “map of former geisterbahnhoefe [ghost stations]”;  Bundesarchiv Bild, “Crowds crossing the Bösebrücke at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing on 18 November 1989″; Montecruz Foto, “Mira la nada: Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Chris Carter, “TG at Checkpoint Charlie, 1980”; Georgie Pauwels, “Sky Over Berlin,” 2013.

David Bowie Archive, “Gasmask Street Poster, 1979”; Raphaël Thiémard, “Fall der Mauer, 1989”; Urbanartcore.eu, “Guy Fawkes in Berlin, 2012”; ‘Kadrik,’ “May Day, Berlin, 2012”; Matthias Rhomberg, “Ghost Station [Nordbahnhof], 2010”; Rolf B., “Berlin Gropiusbau Landing, 1977”; ; H. Fuller, “Madchen auf Demo,” 2010; Rainer Wieczorek, “Neuköllnerstrasse,” 1977; Dschungel, ca. early 198os (unknown photog); ‘Michael’, “Bahnhof Schoeneberg Wannseebahn,” 2010; Andrew Kent, Bowie’s 30th birthday, 1977; Jimmy King, Next Day sleeve photo; Bowie listening to playback at Hansa, 1977.

67 Responses to Where Are We Now?

  1. Mike says:

    Like the song, this entry was worth the wait. Thanks!

  2. col1234 says:

    preempting a likely question: there was no room to get into the Barnbrook album cover, which I’ll probably address on the title track entry.

  3. james says:

    Ugh, I hate people who do to me what I’m about to do to you. That said; ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ is from Wonderland, not Looking Glass. To be frank, I’d have more respect for myself if I’d just written FIRST!

    So it goes.

    • col1234 says:

      you know the damnedest thing is that I originally wrote “Alice” and then for some unknown reason changed it. so now it’s changed back.

  4. slithygimble says:

    Redolent. Replete. Loved it.

  5. John D. says:

    Fabulous piece, I had to read it immediately. Watching the YouTube clip of Leonard describing and playing the chord changes, which was fascinating, it sounds to me like Bowie’s keyboards actually made some beautiful chord changes sound almost dirge-like. I think it was a great choice for the comeback single though. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is arguably a better tune, but almost too virile and contemporary. Where are we now sounded like the work of an older man, and provoked a lot of intrigue. I like the idea of the video being David Jones exhibiting “David Bowie in Berlin”.
    I originally thought the other face was Bjork..

  6. David says:

    I’ve been hungrily anticipating this post since the single dropped-it didn’t disappoint remotely-as always brilliant, stellar writing.

    The event itself I think is legendary as the spectacle of Bowie gobbling off Ronsons guitar frett, or the the apocryphal Victoria station Nazi Salute, it has a similar resonance in the Bowie mythos.

    Where were we when ‘Where are we now’ crept up on us? It’s reflective on so many levels.
    That sense of utter thrall and dread upon first hearing it-as disconcerting as hearing Warsazwa for the first time I think-but it came like a weird bastard offspring of Thursdays Child, the Loneliest Guy, Handbags and Gladrags and Clive Dunns, Grandad.

    I remember playing the video over and over that night, going to bed with the terrible, sickly dread that this was like watching Freddy Mercury sing ‘I still Love you’ – that this was Bowie’s epitaph song.

    As it turned out, it was just another in a long line of retirement speeches.

  7. Andy says:

    Pitch perfect entry, as ever. I was a little disappointed that the rest of TND wasn’t more wistfully reflective. Surprised you didn’t make more of the “As long as there’s you” final line – always thought this was aimed at ‘me’, ie his long waiting audience, rather than the wife/lover that the context of that final section implies. A plea for us to keep keeping the faith.
    This companion piece just popped up in my twitter feed:
    http://dangerousminds.net/comments/david_bowies_transgender_muse_romy_haag

  8. crayontocrayon says:

    Bowie really did a number on us. To look and sound so fragile with this song of memories and nostalgia. Was Bowie going to give us a whole album like this? Was there no publicity because he wasn’t physically up for it. It was a mix of emotions from the happiness of new music and the fear that this would be a weakened Bowie.

    As the rest of the album showed us, this was Bowie again playing a part. I remember reading about the PR company who informed a few key media figures making sure they were ready for ‘something’ and to keep the breakfast news schedules free. It was masterfully done and it made sense that there was a gap before the album dropped. The hype grew and new Bowie music became an event (much as it was for the premier of Sue).

    Spiritually I match this with the loneliest guy, but WAWN comes off as more sincere somehow, perhaps as the former is more vague in its locales whereas this has specific points of interest – places also imbibed with the mystique and legend of Berlin, even if they don’t quite live up to their legends today.

  9. staggx says:

    Wow. Don’t wanna sound creepy but that post was fantastic, genuinely moving, a work of art in itself. Stellar work.

  10. Sykirobme says:

    Fantastic entry, well worth the wait!

  11. Lovely entry. Bowie fooled me with the voice. I remember telling a friend, who spoke about Bowie with me in our early high school years (a rarity at the time), that I felt a certain sadness because of his perceived “fragility”. She agreed. Just goes to show how well-conceived the presentation of new material was.

  12. Mr Tagomi says:

    This entry feels like an event in itself. Great writing.

    I remember being irritated at the time at certain tastemakers in the press going on about Bowie’s beautiful new single when they wouldn’t give his music the time of day in the early 2000s.

    Anyway, I think it was a really clever choice of comeback single, but I like many of the new songs more than it.

  13. Deanna says:

    I said on the entry for “Bring Me The Disco King” that the entire persona (not merely a “character” the media loves so much) of Bowie died with that song. I think that idea holds true with everything he’s done since then. But I don’t think he needs Bowie anymore, as he’s since done everything on his own terms.

    David Jones is now free to tell his stories: of his past, of present-day American culture, of obscure history. People will listen. So there is no need for that final, firmly sewn mask that he was forced to put on so many decades ago to get attention; he can do all he likes from the comfort of his privacy. He always said he was an introvert, anyway.

    I wish he’d speak to us again, of course. I’d kill for that. But I don’t begrudge him for making the choice to remain silent and it’s not particularly surprising that he is.

    I’m just so damn glad he kept going. It takes the unfair weight off the Reality album and we can enjoy more of his art. Whatever happens in the future, The Next Day can withstand this weight of being “final” if it needs to. If it doesn’t, then we get to keep having these excellent conversations. It’s all been made okay.

    Thank you for such a deeply emotional entry. Your writing is very important in capturing Bowie narrative and I hope many more people discover that.

  14. Steve M. says:

    I was intrigued by your mention of Isherwood’s return to Berlin in 1952 and found the piece he wrote on it: http://www.theguardian.com/books/1952/mar/23/classics

  15. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Looking back it was a bit like an email out of the blue from an old friend: good to know he’s well and hasn’t changed that much over the years. However, at the time it seemed incredible; my own memory of the first viewing is of just willing him on to finish the song, such was the prevailing myth of his fragility and instant demise. After forty years, he was still able to catch me out like that.

    I particularly like the ‘last place he was young’ comment. His so-called life in Berlin doesn’t really add up to much more than an extended holiday. I’d always understood the professional significance and the myth of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ – made in France and Switzerland – but I’d never really thought about the personal importance. Particularly interesting in light of the the recent ‘films of Duncan Jones’ entry.

  16. s.t. says:

    Wow, my goodness, what a post. Thanks Chris, this is one of your best yet.
    Hearing this for the first time was indeed momentous, filled with a strange mixture of emotions. There was some disappointment (the arrangement brought ‘hours’ to mind at first, and the rehashed facial projections in the video were underwhelming), some concern for that “frailty” in his voice, and yet an unabashed joy at hearing Mr. Bowie making music again. I had been so smug about his “neo-classicist” albums for so long, that I downplayed how important the man had been and still is to me. That all changed once the prodigal dad had returned to his son (…er…fanboy).
    I had mentioned in an earlier post (“Reality?”) that the frail voice was only partly a character. “Sue” is for me solid evidence that Bowie’s voice is worn. Yet although I predicted that any future Bowie music would be tailored to his limited delivery—e.g., chanting rockers or creaky mood pieces—this may not be the case now that he’s writing for other singers (including Michael C. Hall) for Lazarus. Who knows, maybe the soaring melodies of yesteryear will be resurrected alongside Thomas Jerome Newton.

  17. By a very strange coincidence, I woke up at around 04:00 GMT that morning. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I switched on the computer. I can’t remember how I got there (Twitter links?) but I found myself looking at the newly unveiled DavidBowie.com. It said something about a new song but I struggled to process what that meant. A recent collaboration? Some sort of birthday tribute? “Is it April?” even passed my mind. The bizarre video screencap that illustrated the article didn’t help. Nor did the morning drowsiness. For a good fifteen minutes or so, despite the evidence, the idea of David Bowie dropping a new single seemed ludicrous to me. I watched the video four or five times and linked it on a couple of friends’ Facebook profiles captioning “What is this? What’s going on?” I also snarkily commented “Looks like this blog will have to go on that little bit longer, Chris.” on the Untitled No. 1 entry.
    I think I finally went back to bed at around 06:00 only to rise again a couple of hours later. When I got home that evening I was enjoying Momus’ swiftly constructed, though utterly splendid cover.

    I called Bowie’s bluff relatively quickly. I figured he had specifically chosen a song that would stir up yet more concerns regarding his health. I also noticed a couple of previous Bowie players used the single as a chance to grab a little spotlight attention (I’m looking at you, Flowers!).
    The media reaction to the single, and later the album release was a little odd, but predictable. Even if they didn’t outright say it, you could tell The Next Day was being praised as the next in a long line of Best Albums Since Scary Monsters. One would even be forgiven for believing it was his first album since Let’s Dance.

    As far as the list of comebacks go (MBV, Beyoncé, Radiohead, etc.) I’d be tempted to include Scott Walker, but I suppose with his track record, six years is actually a relatively short amount of time between albums. Didn’t he wish for Bowie’s return in a Facebook post from sometime around late 2012?

    • Deanna says:

      Not that he did, but if a single man could bring Bowie back it would be Scott Walker.

    • Shoop says:

      I too remember waking up on the living room couch (unusual for me) and reading the news, unable to grasp what was going on. Plus it was about 8 or 9am (EST) so there wasn’t too much in the way of people talking about it yet.

      I remember the Walker mention too… It was around the time of the Bish Bosch release.

  18. dmac says:

    wonderful. thank you so much! the back and forth between eras of Bowie, Berlin and the recording follow each other perfectly. well done!

  19. Ramzi says:

    (Apologies for the following ramblings:)

    Somewhere in my possession is a fragment of the Berlin Wall. Maybe. On a school trip to Berlin in March 2011, I bought what is sold in packages in souvenir shops as tiny pieces of the Wall. Our guide – a moustachioed former Colonel by the name of Alain – told us that they likely ran out of Wall a long time ago, so had to make fake pieces to sell. I and many others bought pieces anyway.

    At one point we were taken to Potsdamer Platz to roam about for an hour for no real good reason. I vaguely remember being told by the guide that the studio where David Bowie recorded Heroes was down the street. Not being a fan at the time, it didn’t occur to me to go (besides, all of us being 15, I doubt we were allowed to leave the square). My friends and I went into an H&M.

    On the whole it was a very enjoyable school trip. While the city has obviously experienced more than its fair share of death and destruction, our areas of interest – the Wall, the Airlift, the Potsdam conference, as well as the Cold War in general – leaned towards being “lighter” areas, with actual death mostly being in the background. We were still at the time fairly young teenagers. One highlight was witnessing the true level of debauchery that some 15 year old boys are capable of reaching (best left to the imagination). Another highlight was it being one of the first times I remember speaking to the girl I’d be infatuated with for the rest of my time at school. I remember Berlin fondly.

    Due to a personally poor 2012, things weren’t going too well for me on the 7th of January 2013. Out of a lack of nerves and sheer stupidity, I’d failed to ask out the girl mentioned above. There were other reasons. In July 2012 I developed a heart condition called supra-ventricular tachycardia, which was physically harmless but gave frequent heart palpitations which left me feeling pretty miserable most of the time. Whatever the reasons were for my inaction, I’d blown it, and right at the end of 2012 she had started going out with a 6’4″ rugby player (I am decidedly neither of those things). The next day, the 8th of January, was to be the first day of school after the Christmas holiday. Therefore, it was to be the first day of this new reality, where the girl I was crazy about was no longer just sitting there waiting for me to ask her out – tomorrow, always tomorrow – but was with somebody else.

    The other thing that happened to me in the relatively horrible summer of 2012 was that I became a fan of David Bowie. I’d started a little before July, but it turns out that if you’re going to spend most of your time around the house feeling miserable and sorry for yourself, Bowie’s music is the best soundtrack for it. But even aside from that, something just clicked upon discovering Bowie; it’s not something I can really explain. The magic of his music is that I can listen to it now without the negative connotations: Station to Station, my most-played album then, is still my favourite album now. At a mildly dark time, his music felt like a gift I could fall back on, and it’s been a gift that’s been giving ever since.

    The biggest time it did this was of course the 8th of January 2013. Having only been a fan for 6 months or so, my wait for new material from Bowie was hardly as long as most people’s, but it was still felt all the same. It was still my dormant idol finding life again. I was over the moon. Aside from a week’s holiday in Cape Town the previous October, it was the first piece of genuine optimism my solipsistic teenage self had experienced in a long time. While I should have been dreading it, I went into school that morning with a smile on my face.

    The song can feel somewhat like a reset button. 2013, now year zero: where do things stand? Let’s put all that behind us, and where are we now? As it turned out, this part of my life followed the song. 2013 did feel like a reset, and I did gradually feel better about myself. I had a heart ablation in the June of 2013, have experienced no palpitations since, and it ended up being a good year. However, it was also haunted by the past. I’d had feelings for this girl without acting on them for far too long, so I had feelings for far too long after she got a boyfriend and I should have shaken them off. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about my feelings, which at once could have meant something, but now were useless. I went from voluntary to forced inaction, and couldn’t escape. I was left with my memories of when I should have made it happen differently. My school trip to Berlin was something I sometimes cast my mind back to. Lost in time, walking the dead.

    On that reflection, I suppose I should hold negative connotations with this song. But there’s no way I can. Firstly, it’s simply a beautiful, extremely well made song. It has an emotional immediacy, and it really is open to personal appropriation. It was also the perfect choice for that moment. While the following two singles would be more representative of the album, they would have felt crass as a first statement. This song was not only of an undeniable, quiet quality but it played on the public’s fascination of Bowie in Berlin, so was sure to maximise publicity for what would be the most talked about Bowie song in decades, and a genuine news item across Britain that day. Most of all, it’s the Bowie song I have the strongest connection to. That day was supposed to be bad, and a prelude to a bad year. But it was all going to be okay, because Bowie was here, and back, and promising more in the future. While I know all of the above is rather trivial, the song did, in some small way, change my life for the better. So thanks, David, for the gift of this song. It means the world to me.

    • col1234 says:

      thanks for sharing, man. very nice.

    • dm says:

      Just a tip, when the blog author writes an excelleny an highly anticipated post, you’re not meant to outdo him in the comments unless you’re a Scottish cult sensation with an eyepatch.

      But really, your story brought me to tears. It could be that I’m going through a very destructive breakup and international move right now (moving back in with your parents on the other side of the world and sharing a bunk bed with your brother as an adult is very strange), but your engagement with bowie really struck a chord. Specifically the fact that his music can really be there for you when you need it in dark times, but unlike other music I use for this purpose (The Cure, Codeine, The Smiths, Low, Elliot Smith etc) I can totally detach any of that baggage when I listen to the songs in a different mood. It’s as if the music is simultaneously highly emotive and totally unsentimental. Except, how is Life on Mars anything BUT sentimental? So I’m none the wiser.

      • Ramzi says:

        strange, isn’t it? Hard to put into words, I can only really put it down to his music being very good. Thanks for the compliments btw, and wishing you all the best

    • Joel Anderson says:

      Your post really caught my eye and heart. I first heard about the song that morning on the news channel on TV in the hospital emergency waiting room while I waited to be admitted for a bout with Atrial Fibrillation. To this point my last. I have been a Bowie fan and musician since the late 70s. That day I received medical advice which had ended my issues so I will always remember that day. Just a few months before I played a large festival where I met and hung out with the very personable Gerry Leonard and he put up with my many Bowie queries as well as maintaining his silence on the record. Must have been tough as I was clearly a big fan! He was nice enough to tell me some stories from the 2002 to 2004 period. A great guy.

  20. Phil Obbard says:

    One of your best, Chris. I have vibrant memories of that January morning, too, and the long resigned wait that preceded it.

    I especially appreciate all of the Berlin geography in this post – so much that I had missed until now.

    A few other comments:

    1. Are you saying “Born in a UFO” has its roots in a LODGER outtake?

    2. Glad to see the link made to REALITY. To me, TND is very much a piece with REALITY and HEATHEN (sonically and thematically), but I feel like many critics missed this in 2013. Interesting to wonder if this is basically the LP Bowie would have made in 2005…

    3. For “Where Are We Now” – first, your post made me realize how much I love this song; my appreciation for it has only grown in the last 2 years. Second, Bowie has always loved the “big” ballad — “Can You Hear Me”, “Wild Is the Wind”, “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, “The Motel”, etc. and more recently, “Slip Away” and “The Loneliest Guy”. To me, “Where Are We Now” takes the framework of that last entry and rotates the tires a bit to create something far more compelling and lasting.

    Thanks again — I’ve been thinking about this piece all day.

  21. Lux says:

    Thank you for a read that’s going to be savored and re-read several times. One of the things that fascinated me the most at the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibit was the inclusion of the ring of keys to his Berlin apartment. They were in some ways the most personal and mundane items in the show. There was a talismanic vibe about them, I suppose not just for me since Bowie gave the OK for them to be taken from his archive. A wealthy guy who has had/has several homes in several countries, many “real estate porn” level abodes, keeps keys to his dumpy rental flat of over thirty five years ago. A key to a key.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      There is a picture of mega-rich megastar DB in his otherworldly Mustique pad, but in the background one of the paintings on the wall is slightly out of alignment. Your mention of the keys has reminded me of this.

  22. mark shark says:

    “The players were all old hands: he knew their styles and what to expect from them (though he urged Dorsey to play fretless bass for the first time). ”

    If true this comes as a big surprise to me as I always thought The Motel was played by Dorsey on a fretless.

  23. MC says:

    I’ve been waiting avidly for this post and the ones to come for years now. The Next Day was obviously the first Bowie album I could hear for the first time with your blog’s insights in mind. I’ve been very keen to hear your takes on these songs, Chris. Am looking forward to the rest of PAOTD. (I’m thinking it will take a while to get through all the remaining tracks!)

    Great piece, in any case, worthy of the song and of the event it was back in January 2013. My first impression of Where Are We Now? was of another sad reverie from the land of Hours, but so exquisitely crafted and produced – a reminder of why Visconti should have been behind the boards on that album. Funny, for a song about Berlin, it’s sonically closer to recent tracks like Loneliest Guy (though far superior) and I think you mentioned in an older comments thread the chord changes’ similarity to Space Oddity. Appropriate that a comeback song should pull together an array of Bowies new and old. Of course, I expected the parent album to be more old man musings along the lines of Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas (which I love). I was delighted that TND turned out to be something altogether different.

    As far as the Berlin connection, it’s funny, back in early 2009, there was a tweet from someone claiming to be DB, saying “Cheers from a snowy Berlin. Working on some new material.” A hoax, apparently – or was it….

  24. Steven says:

    Just stating the obvious, but you’ve gotten really good at this. What a gorgeous piece of writing, about such a gorgeous piece of music. Thank you so much.

  25. Momus says:

    1. January 8th 2013 was one of the peaks of my life as a Bowie fan. Of my life, period! A late-breaking — if melancholic — crescendo I didn’t know my fandom could still produce. For a Bowie fan there are moments of epiphany when your idol breaks out of cult status and speaks to everyone, lifting you too to a new status. Rare moments of connection when you’re no longer a freak, when everyone actually gets it and agrees, and we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.

    2. The first time it happened for me was when the Ziggy single came out, and this high, excited Dalek voice was singing about breaking balls on the illicit radios in my Scottish boarding school. When the Diamond Dogs tour opened in Montréal, and kids in my high school in Montréal — regular rock fans — suddenly all looked like Bowie, and you’d hear the songs ringing down the corridors. When the Cracked Actor documentary screened on TV, and I sat watching it with my parents. They didn’t have to like his accent or the way he sniffed, they could see there was something there: the electricity of art.

    3. The move to Berlin, the collaboration with Eno, the sleeve of “Heroes”, even the Bing Crosby duet, they were all thrilling events. The last time the epiphany magic happened was when Ashes to Ashes went to number one in Britain. The talent crackles through that single like a lightning bolt, and everyone can feel it. Kids from my school nodded and said: “You kept going on about this guy.”

    4. Let’s Dance was a seemingly-permanent exit from the weirdness which made all those other crossovers so meaningful. And then there were years — decades! — in which being into Bowie was a cross to bear, because those electrical flashes, those daring and obscene gestures, those audacious arty surprises, stopped coming, or came but were sadly misjudged. Tin Machine! The Pepsi ad with Tina Turner! Rollerskates and headless guitars! Labyrinth! We bought the records, but expected less and less.

    5. But — long after we thought there’d never be another zigzag of sheer dazzlement, another horizon-lighting epiphany, after the dark ages in which “epiphany” came to mean Steve Jobs returning to Apple and giving us the iPhone — 2013 brought two fresh new Bowie epiphanies: the V&A exhibition and Where Are We Now?

    6. It’s telling that we all remember where we were when we heard Where Are We Now? Like war getting declared or a president being shot, it’s etched deep. I was in Osaka, in my narrow, tall house, with my girlfriend. I rushed the laptop upstairs to play her the video. “Look! Debito Bowie-San released a new record on his birthday, and it’s about Berlin!” That was significant because we’d lived in Berlin together.

    7. His voice! Was it a hoax? It was so different, so frail! I noticed some pitch-correct on the chorus (a first for him, used artistically rather than because it was needed). Humour and Brechtian estrangement in the video. A deep welling-up of emotion, a nostalgia, a refusal to hide his advancing age, a quality of yearning you can only really describe with the German word Sehnsucht. Something cute about the old man’s face, and Jacqueline alongside “feeling-with”. The Song of Norway t-shirt, for those of us who know, and notice, and care! The almost-extraterrestrial disappearance of the faces from their holes at the end, with that slight moment of greeting, as Bowie seems to de-helmet and wish us a wistful but affectionate “Farewell!”

    8. I really did feel it was one of my songs, one I hadn’t realised I’d written. Because of Berlin, and because it’s about death — with echoes of Brel — but also because of that melancholic, deliberately downbeat mode, the resolute refusal of rock’s easy energy. But I’d have arranged it differently. So I sat down and — just for fun — did the version I’d have made, with lots of allusions to early Bowie, and stuck it over home movies of Roddy McDowall getting his ape make-up put on. I never for a moment imagined that Bowie himself would see it, that his site would endorse it, that 50,000 people would watch it, and that I’d end up doing interviews with German magazines about it while Bowie stayed schtum. All Bowie epiphanies connect a Bowie fan to the world, but this one, for me, was particularly intense, because it connected me to both Bowie — at his most iconically laconic! — and to the world.

    9. I’m not allowed to tell you that Bowie said my cover was “so cool”, so I won’t tell you that. Not me, gov’nor! But effin’ ‘ell, can you imagine the man who’s epitomised cool for you your entire life long suddenly describing something you’ve done as “so cool”? Wouldn’t that be absolutely the peak moment of your fan’s life?

    10. I like some of the music that followed — Love Is Lost, Valentine’s Day, Like A Rocket Man, ’Tis Pity, with its startling kabuki-style rallentando. But none of them were big gob-banging out-of-the-hat epiphanies like this was. Nikola Tesla came striding unexpectedly out of his artificial lightning. We thought it would surely kill him, but it only made him stronger.

  26. Claws-on says:

    Bowie’s sleight of hand in releasing “Where Are We Now?” as the lead off for the album reminds me of Gene Wilder’s entrance as Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971). We see Wonka, unsteady, walking with a stick, take a few faltering steps and then fall only to forward roll back to his feet with a flourish. It’s Bowie’s big “Ta-dah!” moment.

  27. John Morgan says:

    Great post as ever. One thing though: are you sure the video is of contemporary Berlin? In fact I’ve wondered whether they are home movies. Couldn’t that be Bowie’s staircase on Hauptstrasse?

  28. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t that Throbbing Gristle on the bridge?

    • Anonymous says:

      To elucidate further: the fifth photo down is missing a credit but is a portrait of Throbbing Gristle from, I believe, a Sounds article published in 1978 when Jon Savage was hawking the “New Musick”. If you look closely, you can see that Genesis is wearing the uniform of a concentration camp guard. Nasty.

      L-R: Peter Christopherson Genesis P-Orrige, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter

      • col1234 says:

        uh, it isn’t missing a credit: i found it on Chris Carter’s flickr, where it was identified as being from 1980. It’s credited as being “TG on the Bridge.” See above.

  29. cansorian says:

    Wonderful song; everything I could have hoped for in a comeback song. Wonderful write-up; everything I could have hoped for in a write-up about said wonderful song.

    Thanks.

  30. Stolen Guitar says:

    Peerless…

  31. roobin101 says:

    I’m really looking forward to the entries for the rest of the album. This is the only song that didn’t shrink on me. The Hits weren’t that great, the Weird Shit isn’t that striking, especially compared to Sue and Tis A Pity, and apart from Heat I can’t remember the Old Man songs.

    This though is exquisite, the perfect balance between subject, form and feeling, and it’s interesting that you have the guitarist describe it. The guitar is the hook and the guide throughout the song.

    But, anyhow, I’m looking forward to hearing this album again in a new light.

    • cansorian says:

      Thanks, thought I was the only one who might have this opinion. Where Are We Now and Heat are definitely the songs that work best for me. As Bowie’s long awaited comeback, it’s an album I should like more than I do, so I’m also looking forward to some insight into the other songs that might allow me a way in to the rest of the disc.

      I can’t quite figure out what the problem is for me. Is it the songs themselves or is it the production that’s throwing me off? At first I thought that maybe what was missing was a strong soloist, like Fripp or Garson, to add some oddball dimension to some of the songs, but not sure if even they would have helped.

      I think one thing that’s not doing the album any favors is the mix. I know a lot of these songs were recorded in a small studio room and perhaps that’s why the album sounds squished together. I’m not getting the sense of spatial distance between the instruments in most of the songs. I know Pin-ups isn’t much loved around here but just from a sonic standpoint I think it’s one of the best sounding rock records ever, all the instruments sound distinct and alive but fit together perfectly to give the album some real kick. I think if The Next Day just sounded a just bit more like that I be able to appreciate it more.

      • steven says:

        broadly agree, big part of why I’m hoping Visconti will be gone next time around (not that I don’t think he’s been a huge part of some of Bowie’s best material). If he’s going to make fairly straight forward rock I’d love him to at least do it with Albini, like PJ Harvey (or Pixies, god, imagine an Albini Tin Machine)

        I’m torn between liking TND and being a bit disappointed at what it isn’t, ie, something new. I’d love to hear a new Bowie record but I’d hate it to be Heathen/Reality/TND again.

      • s.t. says:

        “I can’t quite figure out what the problem is for me. Is it the songs themselves or is it the production that’s throwing me off?”

        For me, the songs could be stronger. Dave still can’t seem to shake the penchant for cookie cutter song structures that he developed around the time of Hours (or maybe Earthling?). Most of the songs have a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure. Some songs have bridges, but they’re all similarly standard and predictable. Despite some evocative lyrics and some passionate vocals from Bowie, many of the songs feel formulaic. Perfunctory, even. While I do like the guitar parts (particularly Earl Slick), the best Bowie songs allow strong collaborators to give the pieces personality and space. It was Garson who made “Disco King” soar. On this album, “no frills” is the rule.

        I’m ambivalent about the production. I appreciate that it’s rough and spare, but it also sounds flat. Steve Albini could have engineered a similarly minimal sound that nevertheless had balance and punch. Should Bowie record any more music, I think that Visconti should remain as a collaborator, but should allow someone else to take the lead as producer. Shake things up a bit.

        And finally, there’s the balance of songs chosen. The album continues his reduction of his back catalog sounds, but it seems torn between Neoclassist Haute Bowie (especially ’77-’80) and Arena Bowie Redux (especially ’87-91). This mashing may inadvertently fit in with the album’s concern for defacing the sacred (well represented by the album cover), but it also simply sounds muddled.

      • steven says:

        in the light of recent events i take back my terrible comment.

        He did something great and new, turns out he didn’t need to ditch Tony to do it (just everyone else)

        This entry is even more poignant now.

  32. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I appreciate some of the lovely retrospectives posted, I thought this was a lame, bland song at the time and haven’t changed my opinion. If this was Bowie’s comeback, I thought, he should’ve stayed away rather than return to “The Loneliest Guy.” To me he isn’t remotely interesting when he’s remembering things as you and I would, in a singer-songwriter James Taylor-type way. The Next Day would offer marginally better songs than this.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t like this one at first, either. I was delighted by DB’s return, and awed at his marketing nous, I found it a bit unremarkable, a bit too much like songs on Heathen, which hadn’t appealed to me. But once the album arrived, and I heard it in context, as a moment of calm among all the brasher, louder songs, it suddenly made sense – it’s one of my favourites now. (And it also made me go back and listen again to Heathen and appreciate it better.)

  34. gcreptile says:

    I guess one reason why this song was the single is that it really stands out the most. All the other songs could have been released in 2004/05, only this one marks the passage of time, within Berlin and within Bowie.
    And at the time of its release, the self-references, retro-perspectives, comebacks and the like, had reached comical proportions. After all, it was the first song to be released during the lifetime of this blog. It was a song referencing Bowie’s life himself. Your article mentions the “cool” Berlin of the 80s, Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave living in Berlin just BECAUSE Bowie and Iggy did so in the 70s. Bowie’s latest trilogy Heathen/Reality/The Next Day encompasses the “elder statesman of Indie music” phase of Bowie’s career. The Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, they all thrived on Bowie’s work, and Bowie honored them (honoring him) with his guest appearances. Musically, only The Next Day escapes this thoroughly retro-fied territory, while thematically, it plays with these retro themes.
    I find it funny how someone called Berlin dead in 1997, that shows to me that this person was a fairly straight character, not appreciating the growing underground scene, queer culture, electronic minimalism, which then became big in the 2000s. Maybe it is regrettable that Bowie, after Earthling, stopped listening to these electronic influences and turned towards Indie Rock. It’s also the difference between Ziggy Stardust Bowie and Berlin Bowie. It’s the latter whose music will survive once all the contemporaries are dead. Though Ziggy gets extra points in style.
    I still believe that at some point, Bowie definitely wanted to have the album released after a similar gap to Scott Walker’s 10-year silence between Climate of Hunter and Tilt. Heat couldn’t be a more obvious hint of that.
    I also believe that the final three songs of the album were Bowie’s attempt at creating one last, great hymn. With “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” almost succeeding.
    Finally, while I also live in Berlin (in Neukölln, I’m surprised you didn’t go for the in-joke and spelled it Neuköln!), I was afraid my musical knowledge would not be sufficient to make good contributions.

  35. Gnomansland says:

    Yes Momus amidst a fan’s blushing has it that this is one good song but the rest that are to follow are nothing special. Bowie reeled us all in with this one song and the whole TJ Newton secret session nonsense (why was there a problem with anyone knowing?) and we listened over and over just like we use to but after a couple of weeks on autorewind realised that The Next Day is just more of the same, the same Bowie has been putting out since well lets see the early 80s. One off gems are to be cherished though and so Where Are We Now takes its place among the occasional diamonds: Buddha Of Suburbia, Bus Stop, Hallo Spaceboy and a handful more….

  36. Maj says:

    Only took me 200 years to finally get around to reading this, sorry…but what a great read! One of my favourite pieces on this blog, in fact.

    I loved Crayon to Crayon’s comment about Berlin “it feels like you have far more freedom than in any other big city I’ve lived in”….I only spent a week in Berlin 6 years ago, and this was my exact impression.
    My cousin David (who erm…shares birthday with Bowie’s missus, but was born in ’79) has a lot of disdain for post-2005-ish Berlin vs. what he experienced there in the late 90’s early noughties. But I guess I’m not arty enough to complain that it’s not decadent enough. Back in 2009 the balance was just right…but I can imagine that when I get back there it won’t be as I remembered it.

    WAWN…after over 2 years living with The Next Day album I still think it’s one of the best songs on there. It’s just exquisite in every way (well except for the English-tourist-abroad pronunciation of dem German words man), with the 2nd half-ish being the most exquisitest.

  37. Paul O says:

    <>

    Then, as now and always, never trust anyone who prefers Munich to Berlin.

    I discovered your site this morning as I was looking for a review or discussion of “It’s Gonna Be Me” while shuffle-listening through my Bowie collection. Now I have spent most of the past couple of hours enjoying your writing and insights. Looking forward to reading more.

  38. That Gerry Leonard video is great. I just wish the guitar actually sounded like that in the recorded version; there’s a good song in there, but the production doesn’t really agree with me.

  39. Jaf says:

    Chris, you are the best Bowie scribe ever. That is just a wonderful piece of writing.

    Paul O above is right about the Munich/Berlin thing too.

  40. sidthecat says:

    Wonderful post – full of heart, full of wonder. I wish I could bottle what I felt when I woke up to “David Bowie’s new single”.

    Got your Warren Zevon reference, too…he was great.

  41. Brian says:

    Probably one of my biggest Bowie sacrileges… I thought this article was more interesting than the song. I’ve heard it many times but I just find it dull. The Gerry Leonard video surprised me since it was the first time I really found the song really wowed me.

    The way I see it, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the second in Bowie’s ‘lamentation’ trilogy. The Loneliest Guy was the first, and was similarly a dreary listen. ‘Lazarus’ was the last entry, and is where he not only succeeds, but crafts one of his finest songs.

    ‘Lazarus’ is much more compelling to me, as it not only sounds amazing instrumentally, but the lyrics, vocal, and music video all connect me as close as possible to the pain and regrets Bowie felt as he neared his final days.

    In a kind of morbid hope, I’d really like to see Gerry Leonard cover this as a tribute with just him on the guitar, similar to his rendition of Loving the Alien.

  42. I did the Iggy says:

    Not sure I said this when originally posted, but great piece, Chris. One of your best.

  43. agnestandler says:

    Thanks for the wonderful post. Just a small Berlin footnote: During Bowie`s Berlin years the famous Dschungel was not located in Nürnberger Strasse, but on Winterfeldtplatz, just around the corner from where Christopher Isherwood lived in the 1930s. The club only moved to Nürnbergerstrasse in early 1979. This location is nowadays a hotel, while the old Dschungel has made way for a bar called Slumberland, see:

    http://dschungelberlin.de/Ur-Dschungel.html

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