David Bowie’s exceptional late style

by Robert McCrum / Guardian

14th January 2013

The mysteries of the creative life – where do ideas come from? what triggers a poem, or a story? where are the sources of inspiration? – have been vividly on display this past week with the so-called “second coming” of David Bowie and his surprise single Where Are We Now?

Not since Ted Hughes released Birthday Letters in 1998 has the lyric voice attracted so much attention.

Bowie’s single follows the path of poetry in some significant ways. Evoking the Berlin of the 1970s, the “weird people” of Dschungel cocktail bar, and the dislocated atmosphere of Mehringdamm, it obeys Wordsworth’s celebrated injunction for the poet to strive for “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Also, it focus on a “moment of being”, the singer’s recuperation in an apartment on Hauptstrasse after the madness of Los Angeles.

At 66, Bowie also defies creative gravity. Most poets and songwriters do their best work before the age of 40. Never mind the Romantics (Keats and Shelley dead in their 20s and Byron dead by 35), Shakespeare wrote most of the sonnets, Hamlet, As You Like It and Twelfth Night before he was 40. In prose, Tolstoy completed War & Peace in his late 30s. Proust was working on the last volume of Á la recherche du temps perdu on his deathbed, aged 50. Bowie’s comeback, after a ten year silence in which some said he was dying, is both rare and remarkable.

The contemporary writer – not songwriter – who springs to mind as an artist blessed with a late flowering, is of course Philip Roth. Other contemporary greats who have come into their own towards the end of long careers include WG Sebald, and Geoffrey Hill, whose late work displays a poet at full stretch deep into his 70s. OUP, indeed, will bring out his Collected Poems this year. Such examples, inevitably, are exceptions. Age is not kind to most writers.

Finally I’d like to note the important inspiration of the Berlin Wall. The division of post-war Germany – now lost in the slipstream of history – was one of the defining events of the late 20th century. In literature, it shaped the work of Günter Grass, especially, and the late Christa Wolf. The experience of the GDR also inspired films such as The Lives of Others. Bowie’s lyric is plugged into the romance of Germany’s post-war fate, which also fuelled a generation of spy thrillers. It has, in a word, a rich cultural hinterland on which it draws deeply. The muses of art and history are at their best when working in harmony.

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