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.