‘Whatever clues you can get about David Bowie are important’: Understanding Bowie through his art

Editor’s Note: Paul Morley is a music journalist, curator and the author of “The Age of Bowie.” The following extract is taken from the book and the accompanying video sees Morley explore a preview exhibition of Bowie/Collector, a three-part sale by Sotheby’s auction house encompassing some 400 items from the private collection of the late David Bowie.

CNN  — 

There is something about a phone ringing early in the morning that instantly suggests bad news, and in particular the worst sort of bad news.

Paul Morley, author of "The Age of Bowie"

Death: that time of the morning when the night is holding onto you is when you usually discover someone close to you has died. For whom the bell tolls … I was knocked out of sleep by the shrill, synthetic ring and the desultory, morbid vibration that accompanied it … abruptly pulled from a misty mountain magic dream state where everything was permitted … a gloriously strange world inspired by Bowie’s suavely delirious “Supermen” climax to his 1970 “The Man Who Sold the World” album.

Barely awake, gloomy-browed super gods dying and sad-eyed mermen tossed in slumbers still wafting through my mind, I played the message a morosely flashing blue light informed me was waiting.

A young man politely told me, briefly apologizing in case I did not know the news (beat) that David Bowie had died. Could I call him back immediately, so that I could comment on BBC Radio 4’s Today show that morning; as a matter of urgency?

That was it. A simple, neutral transaction, softly informing me via robotic answer machine that there had been a considerable change in circumstances. Press 3 to delete. During the next few hours, I thought, David Bowie’s name would be said thousands, millions, of times on the radio and television, a mantra helping him safely adopt his next form. Press 4 to express your shock.

I did not call the Today programme back. I didn’t think I would be able to instantly muster the correctly seasoned blend of succinct overview and suppressed lamentation.

I needed time to process this sudden information, that over the past few years at times seemed to be close enough to have expected such an eventuality, but which then seemed delayed, certainly enough that someone who seemed close to death in his mid- sixties – songs were sung wondering if he was dying or even dead, alarm bells rang, mental preparations were made, obituaries organized – now surely might make it into his seventies. After that sense of emergency, it seemed as though Bowie had more completely returned to the land of the living, a near resurrection suggesting he might even make it into his eighties, if not his nineties.

The past few weeks had presented the cheering on-going life of David Bowie as we thought of him in the form of the release of his latest album, “Blackstar”, or simply “”, his twenty-seventh solo studio album if you include his “Tin Machine” albums, establishing continuity with all his others, stretching back from 2016 to 1967, and implying this chain was not yet broken.

It seemed, going by the succulent, uncanny and wounded but alert sound of it, gorgeously formed from formlessness, from fragments, music effortlessly following its own logic, that the link had never been stronger.

“Blackstar” seemed like a follow-up to the illusionless “Low” and his savage and honest 1982 EP “Baal” in the way that Bowie often seemed to work out his own idiosyncratic musical chronology, following up the style and sensibility of albums in a different order to how they were originally released, sometimes even following up an album he had yet to make.

The album link was a lot weaker during the tricky, erratic 1980s, and then, more to do with a decline in the number of releases, the 1990s, leading to his heart attack in 2004. The conditions now felt right to produce a series of records that were the late-life equivalent of the vivid, gleaming sequence in the 1970s that few other musicians come close to.

In the years following his publicized illness there was enough of an apparent withdrawal from activity to suggest that he was in a protective form of self-enacted exile, a radiant exhaustion, nurturing his myth through enforced silence and a particularly discreet form of the manipulative cunning learnt quickly during the late 1960s, as he worked and plotted to get attention, and then refined during his peak commercial years.

Even the detractors questioning his artistic powers would admit he had a genius for publicity.

As a sophisticated marketing man almost painfully aware of his own brand, he noted that by the first and second decade of the twenty-first century it was actually more astute to appear to disappear, in a world increasingly made up of the mere fuzzy energy of publicity, crammed with exposed celebrities, would-be celebrities, reality TV stars, social media show-offs, fame seekers, self- glorifiers, glam hunters and dolled-up pop stars following one way or another in his footsteps. He felt no desire to compete with inferiors.

As David Bowie, based on having been David Bowie for decades, by leaving a space, a vacuum, it would lead to an amplification of all the original mystery that came about because of his appearance, and the correct songs to go with that appearance. To join in with the palaver of Internet-generated fame would mean being drowned by it, dragged down to its increasingly over-exposed level, becoming nothing special.

His job in the end, whatever you think about such an occupation, was to be something special, and in doing so point out everyone’s specialness. Both sides of Bowie, the lover of experiment and difference and the believer in the special forces of theater, could resist appearing for the sake of it at this stage of his life. By resisting appearance, he could be more visible.

This is an extract from Paul Morley’s book titled “The Age of Bowie”.

Watch the video above to find out more about Bowie/Collector, a three-part sale by Sotheby’s auction house encompassing some 400 items from the private collection of the late David Bowie.