He peers out from the face of a bag-headed doll, with the permanently anxious eyes of the elderly Duke of Windsor. Can this really be David Bowie?
After a decade without putting out a note of new material, Bowie reappeared in a new music video on Tuesday, as a face projected onto a stuffed Siamese-twin puppet. As usual, he forced us to reorient ourselves and take nothing about him for granted. Where Are We Now?, the title of the song, might equally apply to the audience watching Tony Oursler's unexpected video: Where are we now with David Bowie?
He has always been keen to put us in a place not experienced before, somewhere fantastical yet urgently present. His first hit, Space Oddity, was about a disaffected astronaut floating in the metaphor of outer space. Real stardom found Bowie disguised as Ziggy Stardust, a space-age rock-star caricature whose shadow haunted the singer even after Ziggy's hasty burial in 1974. At times, David Bowie has seemed almost less real than his personae, from the Thin White Duke to the doubting, apocalyptic dreamer of 2002's Heathen.
Bowie grew up in a suburb of London, and his drive toward the centre of the pop world has always involved pulling in things that were out on the margins. In many ways, he has succeeded in music by cultivating a theatre sensibility, just as Peter Greenaway became a distinctive filmmaker by looking through the lens like a painter.
The godfather of Ziggy Stardust may have been the English actor and mime Lindsay Kemp, who Bowie studied with, and whose extravagant self-presentation gave his young student permission to invent glam rock. I've seen several Kemp shows, and like Bowie, he makes you feel things by pushing past limits – of gender, taste, even gravity.
Another big figure for Bowie was Anthony Newley, a musical-theatre performer of tremendous verve and old-fashioned craft. You can hear the mature Newley's vocal style in much of Bowie's singing, but he also absorbed from Newley the knack of becoming the character who could be expressed in the song.
The cliché about actors is that they need to be a character, to fill a void inside. "Offstage, I'm a robot," Bowie told Newsweek in 1973. "Onstage, I achieve emotion. It's probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David." He said later that Ziggy's rampant success threatened his own sense of self. His move to Berlin in 1976 was partly an escape, as were the relatively experimental recordings (including Low) he made there with Brian Eno.
As it happens, that's the period and place Bowie wants us to think about in Where Are We Now? In the video, a screen behind the singer's projected face shows black-and-white footage of Berlin from the seventies, with shots of the Wall and street scenes. The lyrics are full of allusions to Berlin avenues, but you can tell he's singing about the vanished locations of the mind, where actual people once were, but are no longer. He's "a man lost in time… just walking the dead." For the first time, perhaps, we're seeing a Bowie with no disguise at all. He's very much a 66-year-old man, looking rather sadly into a past that's much longer than his future, lips barely moving over the remembered names.
It's safe to assume the conceit of putting Bowie's face on a cloth bag-head is all Oursler's – he has been projecting faces on distorting surfaces for years. But this is the first time his gallery of face oddities has included a rock star. The two-headed puppet's other face is that of a young woman, who doesn't sing and hasn't been identified. My guess is that whoever she is, she's at least partly a symbol, for Bowie's somewhat opportunistic gender blurring, and for the promise of renewal. "As long as there's sun, as long as there's rain," he sings – as long as there's life, in short, new music and art are possible.
It's not clear whether Bowie was actually in Oursler's New York studio when the video was shot. His part could have been filmed anywhere, then projected into a space full of intriguing objects but devoid of visible people. That's one of the little jokes of this sombre video: While musing about where he may be now, Bowie isn't even on the scene. He's always like that – somewhere else, even when we're looking right at him.
David Bowie's album The Next Day will be released on March 11. The Victoria and Albert Museum's David Bowie retrospective exhibition opens on March 23.
SONG REVIEW: A gentle comeback
Known for his fierce fashion and bold conceptions, David Bowie has returned from exile in gentle, existential form. With no warning, the inimitable English rock star celebrated his 66th birthday on Tuesday with the release of Where Are We Now, a new song from his first album in a decade. The 14-track The Next Day is due out in Canada on March 11. On Bowie's newly relaunched website, the track elegantly flows to a lyric video that looks back upon the singer's days in Berlin. Words are sung soft and high as the luxurious, less than Bowie-like ballad rises to a moving, questioning chorus. The song is wistful, hopeful – "as long as there's sun, as long as there's sun/ as long as there's rain, as long as there's rain." Bowie, who once famously sang that he could not trace time, has done just that, sublimely. – Brad Wheeler