Where Were We, Again?

Time Isn’t Passing, It’s You Passing

Graffito on a broken piece of the Berlin Wall, ca. late 2000s

By the summer of 2012, the obscure song-by-song David Bowie blog that I’d started on a whim three years before had become a lively small corner of the internet. Its comments section had managed to avoid snobbery and personal attacks (well, mostly) and was populated by people with fresh insights into Bowie’s work. One debate we had back then was whether Bowie was through. If he would ever put out new music again.

I hadn’t been aware of Bowie’s “retirement” when I started writing the blog, though in retrospect his absence was one subconscious reason why I chose him to write about—it seemed like David Bowie was no longer in the conversation as much, that he’d wandered off without notice and was worth looking for. 

But by 2012, what once had been the general take—“oh, I guess he’s taking a break”—was becoming far more “did he really just quit? And tell nobody?”

When asked what I thought, I’d usually say, yeah, maybe Bowie really was done with making new music. After all, he’d flirted with departing before: to give it up and concentrate on painting, have time to read even more books. Around 1968, when he was between record deals and desperately shifting from folk music to cabaret to auditioning for Hair. Around 1981, when he seemed more interested in doing movies and plays, was stuck waiting out an onerous settlement with his ex-manager, and was shaken by the death of John Lennon, killed by an alleged super-fan.

And in the late Eighties, when Bowie was in the doldrums, he told the director Julien Temple of his yen, in Temple’s words, “to parachute out: to find a strategy that would give a glorious exit…a kind of Houdini escape from pop stardom.” (Tin Machine, it turned out, served as his Houdini device then.)

In the early 2010s, there were a lot of signs that this time, he was gone for good. He had a young daughter. His son was starting on a promising film career. He was happily married, rich, comfortable—he’d bought out Tony Defries at last, and now had his song royalties back, after a decade of loaning them out to bankers. The iTunes/Soulseek era, and its concurrent implosion of record retailers and labels, meant you didn’t earn as much from records, particularly for a “legacy” act who hadn’t had a hit in over fifteen years. He’d had a health scare in ’04 and looked to be done with touring, which he’d always been ambivalent about.

I said maybe he was working on a memoir. That would make sense, no? He finally had the time to sit down and go through it all. He’d hired an archivist some years back, and in December 2012, the museum exhibit was announced. The past seemed like his future.

Of course, as we now know, he’d been working on a record since the autumn of 2010, recording it in secrecy in 2011 and 2012, and having regular second thoughts about ever releasing it. His confidence was shaky. Had he been gone too long? Would his big return land with a flop? Was the work good enough? It wasn’t until the autumn of 2012, when he hired Jonathan Barnbrook to do the LP cover and told a few executives at Sony they were, to their surprise, going to release a new Bowie record, that he committed to his comeback.

On Tuesday morning, January 8, 2013: a new song. The announcement of a new album (Bowie’s PR did a masterful job of alerting just enough journalists the night before to expect the news—he captured the news cycle without giving a single interview). Over a dozen new song titles to wonder about. 

On the blog, the current entry was “Untitled No. 1.” I’d written it in the days after Christmas, through a pretty sorry New Year’s. As I’d been thinking that Bowie had retired without notice, I ended the entry with “there are a few times where it seemed as though Bowie could have stood up, then and there, and never recorded another note again: these tiny eddies of finality, in which everything in Bowie’s work and life reconciled for a moment before they broke apart again. This is one of them.”

The comment section, now frozen in time, is a wonderful record of people around the world learning the news, learning that he was back.

I found out through texts and notifications on my phone, waking up to constant pings. Once I realized all the ado was about Bowie, for a moment, until I processed what was going on, I feared he was dead. It turned out to be the dress rehearsal for three years later.

Now, somehow, it’s ten years later. Bowie’s been gone for seven. As Sandy Denny once sang, who knows where the time goes? Or as Bowie sang, where the fuck did Monday even go?

How does “Where Are We Now?” sound, a decade on? We now know how dissimilar it was from the rest of the loud, occasionally hectoring The Next Day. He crafted it as the official comeback song: meant it to be weary, sad, mournful, to be “David Bowie is Old, and Nostalgic,” to suggest that his voice had withered to a late Leonard Cohen rasp. One of the great fakes in a career full of them, as it turned out.

That’s not to say there isn’t a great well of sorrow deep in the song, that Bowie isn’t reckoning with time’s carnage, for he is. He’s just doing it in his oblique way—imagining himself, or a version of himself, as a old man tottering through an unrecognizable Berlin, a Berlin in which the Wall is a bad dream that a dwindling number of its citizens once had. A list of old names in his head, arranged like a code sequence: the Dschungel; Nürnberger Straße; KaDeWe; Bösebrücke.

The Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Kurt Weill; the Berlin of “Heroes,” of Hansa By the Wall and Iggy Pop and Romy Haag; even the Berlin of the early 2010s, a still-affordable metropolis sitting in the middle of a continent at peace—all are discarded editions. You walk through the city now, turn a corner, see that something has changed that you didn’t expect—a subway stop has vanished; there are no more newsstands; the coffee shop on that street, which had been around since the War, closed for good during COVID. A young man brushes by who wasn’t born when Bowie released Reality

One response to time is a simple incredulity. You never knew that—that I could do that, Bowie sang, addressing a lost lover, maybe reckoning with a past self. What sticks with me the most from “Where Are We Now?”, a decade on, is how Bowie sings “the moment you know, you know you know.” He’s caught another glimpse of how others must see the faker, and has a handful of years left to baffle them yet again.

19 Responses to Where Were We, Again?

  1. Maj says:

    This is a great, post, Chris.
    I’m not someone who likes to wallow in nostalgia, but you got me there.

    Both the release of new music after quite a while…I BLOODY REMEMBER IT & our reactions to it here on this blog & on Twitter; and my August 2009 week-long holiday in Berlin, which was great. Where Are We Now? didn’t quite give me the same kinds of “feels” when it came out, that it does now, have to admit.

    Ah…those were the days. Damn it. Damn nostalgia. Damn you. (Not really!)

    Anyway, here’s to David, who’s still very much a presence in our lives!

  2. Lynda Fisher says:

    Took a trip to the Untitled No1 blog post to visit the comments and that lovely time in 2013. I’ve learned a lot from the Bowie community and your blog. Always something new to explore; always some great inspiration. There was a great deal of knowledge and insight in those early days here. “Where were we, again?” indeed. As always you captured all the feelings exactly. What a time it was. I’ve always thought Time is the main character in “Tis a pity she is a whore”. Look at her there, fallen, wanking on the floor. Great read…Thanks Chris.

  3. Paul Thomson says:

    Hello again, been a while. Thanks for keeping your excellent blog alive, always been greatly appreciated.

    I remember when Where Are We Now “dropped”, completely unannounced on FB. I was online by chance, unable to sleep, and so was one of the very first to comment on the post and share it with my friends. “How exciting!” was all I said.

    Looking back it feels bittersweet now. I was delighted at the time and remain unreservedly happy we had the last two glorious albums…but I also now see it as the end game, the closing chapter, and it makes me sad. I never met Bowie, though, like so many of us, he loomed large in my life providing both background and inspiration as I stumbled forward. So it took me aback how hard his death hit me and indeed still hits me. Perhaps I should have been prepared as visiting the V&A Is exhibition had made me aware of just how personal my relationship with him seemed. Very strange, unexpected and unlike me I thought.I’ve never been one for heroes or celebrity culture. Maybe I just overestimate myself, my level of separation from the crowd when, really, that’s all I’ve ever been a part of.

    I have not really visited Darkstar since his death as I find it all too raw, a rawness that seems to have seeped into my appreciation of The Next Day too, despite my playing it almost on repeat for weeks upon its release.

    Recently I’ve been pondering mortality. In the next ten years we are likely to witness the death of all those heroes of the 1960s and many from the 1970s, Dylan, Mitchell, Young, the remaining Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Velvets are all likely to go. The death of Terry Hall took me by surprise as he seemed more contemporary to me-and I realise that I myself may well be in my last decade. Bowie will still provide my soundtrack as I continue to stumble, until I fall. Thanks for that David, thanks for everything you gave to me. I never did really say goodbye, I avoided it really, but, who knows, I may be saying hello pretty soon? When you know, you know indeed.

  4. Deanna says:

    Ten years, Jesus. This decade feels a lot shorter than the one before that.

  5. EVM says:

    I remember telling my mother, who liked Bowie in a “oh, interesting is it?” way, that I would get the song for her. She died less than a month later, before I could manage to share it with her. Somehow it has become the one thing that always makes me think about her, because it was the one thing I was sure we would have enjoyed together at that precise time and place we both were. Thanks for the entry…

  6. Paul Inglis says:

    I was in New York City in May 2012 for a few days and I was wondering what Bowie was up to. I even imagined accidentally encountering him in the street. After all, that had happened once in Sydney while he was recording Tin Machine II. I wrote a song while I was in New York, and then foolishly sat on it for years. It was asking what had happened to him, a little like Bowie’s own song to Bob Dylan. I had to change the lyrics after “Where Are We Now” was announced. Then I had to change them again 3 years later! When I finally released it, I had no idea other people had written different songs with the same title. I would have changed the title if I’d known that.

    Your post brought the memories all back again. I have been reading your blog since forever, or so it seems. Thanks for everything.

    • John D. says:

      Hi Paul, it would be nice to hear the song, where could it be found? I also wandered the upper East side a few times in the noughties thinking I might somehow just bump into Bowie 🙂

      Chris – great blog as usual thank you. That’s been a fast decade indeed. I remember being underwhelmed by WAWN and remain so. The bit at the end with the synths is nice. It’s certainly more interesting than most of the rest of The Next Day.

      Blackstar was a wonderful exit. I’ve been meaning to ask you. And in fact have probably asked you before, and I think you’ve maybe avoided the question. But do you think Bowie had been dead for a while before Blackstar was released? It all felt too neat. I remember watching the Blackstar single video, and getting a fright at the middle “showtune” sort of section. He looked so frail. Incidentally, Bono notes in his recent book how incredible he found that middle section. It’s excellent.

  7. Jim Baxter says:

    What does he mean by ‘the moment you know, you know you know’? I’d not really thought about it before, but it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d see in a work of philosophy. An epistemological point: that knowledge of X necessarily involves knowledge of one’s knowledge of X. But what’s the knowledge he’s singing about here?

  8. Dave says:

    Thanks for this, Chris. “Where Are We Now” and The Next Day are extra special for me because they marked the point at which Bowie became mine, for lack of a better description at this early hour in Mountain Time.

    What I mean is that Bowie was already established as a superstar when I really got into him. I was fortunate to be introduced to “Space Oddity” in 1973 at age seven on a visit to see my family in England. As I got into rock in grade school, I always liked Bowie’s hits when he came on. I liked the songs from Scary Monsters when my family got cable and MTV in 1980, but Bowie was an established star and I didn’t identify with him in the way I did The Police, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the other new wave/alternative bands that I discovered at the same time. Ditto with Let’s Dance, which I loved in my senior year of high school — but again, it felt different compared to U2, who I fell in love with early and who I identified with more.

    I got deeper into Bowie’s catalog over time (and being able to afford more records post-college!) but he remained somewhat distant to me, and in the same category as The Stones — established before my time and never quite mine. In the few years before The Next Day, I had the time and space to get much deeper into his catalog and loved him even more. I was perfectly primed for The Next Day! And it frustrated me that my musician and music-loving friends didn’t seem to care — “A new Bowie record? He’s still around?” — which made me love it all the more. The Next Day turned me from a big Bowie fan into a superfan.

    Then, Blackstar changed my life. I was so taken by Mark Guiliana’s drumming on David’s amazing songs that I bought a drum kit from a friend and went back to drumming after 25 years on guitar (I played drums up to 23 and then moved to guitar/lead singer). As fate would have it, I began studying with Mark at the beginning of the pandemic and have met with him most months since (brilliant artist, beautiful person).

    The Next Day and Blackstar being contemporary Bowie releases for me were game-changers. I’ll always be deeply grateful for David’s final chapters. Thanks for listening. Chris, thanks for continuing to provide this space — I’ve learned so much through your books and the comments here.

  9. Pierre says:

    Time is speeding up. The moment you know you know… as never been so paramount. A fast decade full of unexpected surprises.

  10. contemplatio says:

    I remember that day. I was perusing my feeds in Google Reader (remember that?) on a slow workday and I had to read twice the title of a blogpost that sounded both ecstatic and in shock. Bowie had released a new song, nobody knew about it beforehand, no announcement, but it was there for all of us to hear. I remember playing it over and over again the next few days, weeks, months and by now, years. It’s my favorite from that album, maybe because it’s so different from the rest.
    I can’t remember if back then I was already a loyal reader of this blog, but it’s thanks to you that since then I’ve listened to an artist I already admired with fresh ears and increased curiosity. Your blog and books (last year I finally got my hands on the second one) are a permanent source of both inspiration and awe. Cheers and thank you.

  11. Thanks Chris for getting us this lovely reflection for Bowie’s birthday — as befits its subject, not actually a look back, but an accounting of how far we’ve come. It seems no coincidence that the closer Bowie got to the end of his life, the more he keyed new creations to a day supposed to be about commemoration (this single and all of Blackstar, and even the 50th-birthday concert, so heavy on songs most people had not yet heard). Always feeding the legend (e.g., releasing Nothing Has Changed between The Next Day and Blackstar) without leaning on it, like that Rock Hall of Fame induction he didn’t show up for and the knighthood he turned down. I’ve long thought of Bowie’s canon as axes on a circle, along which he could always run into himself again (and so could we), so this song, and that time, never will get old for me.

  12. Coagulopath says:

    I came to everything too late: I became a Bowie fan after his death, and I started reading this blog when it began wrapping up.

    But I had a great time reading the archives in chrono order and experiencing the rise, fall, rise again, etc of David Robert Jones at 300x speed. DB lived a cinematic life, or Chris is gifted at making life appear cinematic, or both.

    (random example: I could basically hear ominous “Jaws” music playing as I read the “Shake It” entry, it felt an obvious harbinger of things to come. I still say that Let’s Dance ends with “Cat People” and “Shake It” is the opening track of Tonight.)

    The Next Day changes immensely when you don’t have the context of it being Bowie’s return. It becomes a collection of okay-to-good songs, like Reality and Heathen before it.

    The track that cut me the deepest, incredibly, is “Plan” – that weird tattered rag that isn’t even on the album. It reminds me of Low – when it was okay for things to be “unfinished”, and not everything needed to be fitted with the bodywork of pop songwriting, like verses and choruses and guitar solos. “Plan” is an incredibly liberating piece of music. And again, a harbinger.

    Blackstar was the true comeback, at least for me.

  13. metricftonne says:

    I really hope you’ll do an expanded retrospective on The Next Day. When it came out I was so excited and hoped it would bring a boost of joy into my life…joyous that album is not! Ten years later I feel like I’ve finally aged into the content and like it quite a bit.

    What with an elderly Bowie releasing it amidst rumors of decay, lyrics heralding mankind’s brutality, the obfuscation of his own album artwork…to me it’s really all about everything going to waste in one way or another and the indifference of the universe. I think a new review at this time might well be the proper one.

  14. James LaBove says:

    Oh man, what a shock it was to hear Where Are We Now for the first time. I too was certain that he’d quietly retired by that point, and I was in the midst of a major Bowie kick; living on his music daily. I had long resigned myself to the thought that we wouldn’t ever hear new music from him.

    Then, there was the release of Where Are We Now. After I watched the video, I called my partner (whom I’d just recently met) in tears, and told him the news – I think that’s the first time he’d heard me sound so moved by anything. It left an impression on him. Ten years later, when the song comes on, he still mists up thinking about that conversation. (Which, of course, in turn makes me mist up, hah.)

    The Next Day became my partner’s entry point into Bowie’s discography – he explored the catalog by working backwards from there, Nothing Has Changed style. It was such a joy watching him hear Bowie’s songs with fresh ears.

    We listened to the album just a week ago on a long car ride, back to back. I wouldn’t quite say it’s one of my favorite Bowie albums, but it has many formidable moments. And it’ll always hold a special place in my heart for the connection it gave me and my partner.

  15. Ally says:

    Beautifully worded – poignant in the way that Where Are We Now? hits. Thank you!

    (And what a weird feeling it is to start a new year without this blog continuing yet again after thinking it’d come to an end in the previous one. Kind of miss the “The definite last Christmas” posts.)

  16. Stardust memories says:

    I choked up and had to blink back tears reading this. Thank you for writing as you do, and for keeping him alive in our memory. Memories are all we have left.

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