Life after 'Let's Dance': Paul Wells on David Bowie

His career lasted 30 years after the classics. Our columnist on the chameleonic legend's late period, and what it says about Bowie.

British pop singer David Bowie in concert at Earl's Court, London during his 1978 world tour. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

British pop singer David Bowie in concert at Earl’s Court, London during his 1978 world tour. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

In an interview for a supplement to Lucky magazine to mark the 2005 Fashion Rocks charity show in New York City, the journalist David Itzkoff asked David Bowie about the name he was given at birth—about his identity, if you will. “This may sound like a very esoteric question,” Itzkoff asked, “but does the persona of David Jones still exist within you?”

“Yes,” Bowie replied. “The Bowie character, for me, is strictly to be used for the stage, so I can hide back away as David Jones. Right now, in the mountains, where I am at the moment, it’s David Jones. With my family I am David Jones, very much.”

It’s a point worth repeating about Bowie, who died on Sunday two days after he released his final album, Blackstar: At every point in his career, the face he showed the world was a face he had chosen and carefully constructed. This was, to a great extent, the point of him. It was much of what his admirers found personally liberating in his example: that identity can be freely selected and asserted, whether it’s musical, political, visual, or any other kind of identity. At no point after perhaps 1972 was it even particularly useful to ask where the “real” Bowie ended and “the Bowie character” began. He was who he chose to be. When his choices or the cultural moment changed, so did he.

This was at least as true in the long aftermath of his most successful album, 1983’s Let’s Dance, as it was before, when Bowie was more ostentatiously a member of rock’s experimental underground. His early years are getting most of the attention in the wake of his death. This is as it should be: his albums from the 1970s were consistently daring and managed to become, almost despite their audacity, the soundtrack for a decade.

The ultimate Bowie playlist: His 20 most important songs, and why they matter

But while he had legions of fans who prefer to act as though nothing that mattered came after Diamond Dogs and Low, Bowie himself didn’t really have that luxury. He had to live through the three decades after the Serious Moonlight tour ended, a day at a time. He chose to reject nostalgia and to keep reinventing himself, again and again, from assorted motley shards of the zeitgeist. The construction of “the Bowie character” was always a work in progress.

Not that Let’s Dance didn’t knock him for a loop. Its worldwide sales were well north of seven million copies. He had never had an audience that large. Nor any that distracted: before 1983, the complexity of his assorted personas would have made it difficult for anyone to be a casual Bowie fan, but suddenly his admirers were legion. He freely admitted to Rolling Stone that the goal of the next album, Tonight, was “to keep my hand in, so to speak,” with that mass audience. The results, on Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down, were mixed at best: a couple of disposable hit singles, a reggae-tinged ballad duet with Tina Turner, a (strikingly sombre) Beach Boys cover. One track featured the actor Mickey Rourke rapping. It was all caked in layers of MTV-era studio processing, with plenty of gated reverb on the drums. Already by 1987 Bowie was weary of trying to please a crowd. “I stayed away from experimentation,” he told Rolling Stone mournfully. “Now, I think I should be a bit more adventurous.”

He would be as good as his word. He executed his return to a life of experimentation in three steps. First, in 1989, Tin Machine released their first album. This was, the members insisted, a real band, one whose singer just happened to be David Bowie. (The others included the sons of television comic Soupy Sales, Hunt Sales on drums and Tony Sales on bass.) Tin Machine never amounted to much, but it sounds better in retrospect than it did at the time, because despite the Italian suits the guys wore on their first album cover, their rough, guitar-driven sound foreshadowed the grunge rock of the ’90s with uncanny foresight.

British Pop Star David Bowie screams into the microphone as he performs on stage during his concert in Vienna. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

British Pop Star David Bowie screams into the microphone as he performs on stage during his concert in Vienna. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

In 1990, Bowie formally turned the page, not just on the hits from Let’s Dance, but on almost his entire career to date. He launched his Sound + Vision Tour with an extended series of concerts across Canada before continuing around the world. The conceit of Sound + Vision was simple: He would play his hits, all of them from across the years. But then he would never feel an obligation to play any of them again. He was 43 years old.

In 1993 he released his first solo album in five years, Black Tie White Noise. On paper it looked like yet another attempt to capture the Let’s Dance lightning in a bottle, because it was co-produced, as that hit was, by Bowie and guitarist-producer Nile Rodgers. Instead Black Tie inhabited a sonic universe with little precedent or peer: austere, synthetic and chilly, closer to house music than rock, but with radiant melodies and vocals from the newly married Bowie. It didn’t sound any more like classic Bowie than it did like the CDs on either side of it at Tower Records. It was sui generis.

From there on in, even when Bowie reconnected with past collaborators, the results didn’t sound like their earlier work. 1995’s Outside paired him with Brian Eno, his producer on the ’70s milestones Low and Heroes, but it was a dystopian concept album that resembled them in no particular way. Earthling, from 1997, surrounded Bowie with the hyperkinetic jungle and drum ’n’ bass grooves of the era’s dance-club music. Sometimes sounds Bowie had swiped from the dance clubs would find their way back: “Hallo Spaceboy,” from Outside, was a hit in a remix by Pet Shop Boys. “And I want to be free,” Bowie sang, “Don’t you want to be free?/ Do you like girls or boys?/ It’s confusing these days.”

He ended his epic career with a one-two combination that would stand comparison with his most satisfying work from any era. The Next Day, from 2013, was a return to rock ’n’ roll, raggedy and elemental in the manner of his ’70s classics, and it came by it honestly because it was produced by Tony Visconti, who had worked with Bowie off and on since Space Oddity.

The Next Day was a surprise when it arrived. The release of a first single for sale on iTunes was the first anyone had heard of it. Maybe listeners should have realized Bowie was not done surprising us. Last week’s release of Blackstar was the final masterstroke from a genius of self-creation. Since Sunday night, combing the album’s lyrics for hints of its author’s demise has become a grim cottage industry, and it’s easy work: “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings at the top of the second single, “Lazarus.” Well, he did know he had cancer for 18 months, after all.

A still from David Bowie's video for "Lazarus."

A still from David Bowie’s video for “Lazarus.”

What’s at least as striking is the album’s musical content. Yet again, Blackstar sounds not much like anything else Bowie had done. Bowie and Visconti managed the trick by recruiting the New York jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and McCaslin’s entire band. What’s striking is how little Blackstar sounds like McCaslin’s own recent albums, full of the fussy athleticism that characterizes too much of today’s jazz. Blackstar is altogether more brutish, glowering and direct. Bowie hired these outsiders to execute his concepts, not theirs, and one suspects he liked the way they approached the task without the glib facility of longtime associates.

One reason those classic records from the ’70s sounded as raw as they did was because in that bygone era, everything was new to everyone. Every player had to answer the basic questions from scratch: What’s the function of the drums? What should the guitar sound like? Where do the accents land in a 4/4 bar? Blackstar conjures that freshness and exploratory spirit with starkly different means. Bowie knew he was dying, it’s obvious. He decided he’d approach his last challenge, the one he could not surmount, as he’d met so many others: by building “the Bowie character” from scratch, as he’d done so many times before, reassuring and unknowable, familiar and new. “Oh, I’ll be free/ Just like that bluebird,” he sings in “Lazarus.” “Oh, I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me?” And indeed it was.

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