Bowie’s golden years: why sixties are the new forties

by Bernadette McNulty / Telegraph

8th January 2013

In an interview in this week’s Big Issue to promote his directorial debut Quartet, Dustin Hoffman talks movingly about a late-life epiphany he had. The 75-year-old describes being controlled by anxiety for most of his years, driven by worries about the future and anger about the past. But he goes on to pinpoint a Damascene moment he had in the Nineties watching an interview that Dennis Potter gave describing the effect of discovering he had terminal cancer. Living with an end point clearly in view had made Potter feel, he said, more alive than ever, able to profoundly experience being in each moment in a way he had never done before. Hoffman said that for him too, while not living with illness, the act of passing into his Sixties had been a liberation into living with a new sense of joy and possibility.

When the news broke that David Bowie was releasing his first album in a decade the question on many people’s lips was why now? Most assumed that after heart surgery and a career that seemed to have plateaued at a level of kindly critical appreciation but dwindling sales, Bowie had graciously retreated from the silly pop game to enjoy the kind of family life he missed first time around and a contemplative existence, devoted to his painting and low-key New York arty living.

Retirement in our sixties may be something that most of us wage-slaves aspire to, with increasing resignation that it may not be until we hit 70 that we will be able to give up the daily commute. But for successful creative types the decade that used to be dreaded, that Paul McCartney imagined would be spent losing his hair and taking holidays on the Isle of Wight, is increasingly spent getting a second, or in many cases, third or fourth wind. The joke used to be that life began at 40 but now it seems like it really gets going at 60.

Musicians particularly, unreliant on physical prowess or youthful good looks to make money and who can create their work quickly and easily on their own or with little help, seem to find it an age of creative renewal. Spearheaded by Johnny Cash’s magnificent last hurrah in his sixties with his Rick Rubin produced Highway recordings, the likes of McCartney, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Tom Jones, Patti Smith, Gil Scott Heron and most recently Bobby Womack, have all been inspired to either re-emerge into the world, or return with a kind of certainty to the roots of their talent to make music that reminds you of them at their best.

It couldn’t be more apt, then, for Bowie to come back with a plaintive song called Where Are We Now? a song lost in a reverie of the past before jubilantly he finds himself in a celebration of the present. Like Hoffman he answers that he is happily in the moment, surrounded by the simplicity of life, nature and ultimately each other. It feels like a labour of love rather than necessity, made with long-time friend, collaborator and next door neighbour Toni Visconti, the video shot by another old friend, installation artist Tony Oursler. He is still shape shifting, his head morphed onto a two-headed body next to local painter Jacqeline Humphries but he is also profoundly looking back, surveying the workshop beneath his old Berlin flat.

Bowie has spent his life seeking out the next thing, the new thing, plundering the past to fashion the future. Finally though, in the end, it feels like he has come back to himself and it sounds like a beautiful new beginning.

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