Saturday, August 20, 2011

What will David Bowie do now?

In a recent posting to this whoopee cushion of laughs I call What Would David Bowie Do? I begged allowance for the regularity with which dead musicians get laid out on the mortuary slab of editorial examination.

So to change the mood a little, let's discuss retirement: earlier this week it was reported that the man who lends his name to this very blog "may" have reached for the pipe and slippers.

This isn't, generally, in the script. Rock stars are meant to die before they get old, or rock on until they drop.

Nowhere does it say that they should, at a certain moment, chuck it all in for a gold carriage clock and the chance to work on their allotments, or to take up Crown Green Bowls.

However, it can't be ignored that our rock stars are getting on a bit. The Rolling Stones now have a combined age of 264. Mick Jagger, at 68, is still prancing around like someone a third his age (or, roughly speaking, the same age as Ronnie Wood's latest girlfriend), while Keith Richards (67) continues to defy all known terrestrial medical science by simply being alive. There have been rumours for a while that the Stones might be planning one last hurrah of a tour to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but so far nothing.

Retirement was, nevertheless, an option pursued by 60-year-old Phil Collins, who announced earlier this year that he’d hung up his drumsticks for good. This was partly because of a chronic back problem which meant he could no longer hold his drumsticks without having them taped to his fingers (which probably means he's off Chinese food now too). Collins also wanted to focus on bringing up his two young sons, while at the same time spending more time with his model trains and bizarre obsession with the Alamo (the battle, not the car rental company). All fine, I suppose, but it shouldn't be forgotten that drummers generally don't retire. As Spinal Tap once explained, drummers expire in bizarre gardening accidents or on-stage explosions. Or in the case of Keith Moon and John Bonham, caning it.

So what about David Bowie? According to Paul Trynka, author of this year's excellent biography Starman, The Dame might not record again. “My heart says he’ll come back,” Trynka told Spinner, “but my head says he’s likely not to.  I think he would only come back if he thinks he could deliver something that will be seismic. It would be a bit of a miracle if he comes back, but miracles do happen."

Bowie certainly hasn’t released any new material since Reality in 2003, with the exception of an unofficial 'lost' album, Toy, which was leaked on the Internet earlier this year. At the end of Bowie's 2004 tour he underwent an emergency angioplasty for a blocked artery. While hardly a career-ending procedure, his public appearances have been sporadic and few ever since, and there has been no sign of his Thin White Dukeness visiting a recording studio.

If, at 64, Bowie has scaled things down, he will certainly be living comfortably off the royalties of his considerable back catalogue. This is the rock star's pension plan. Long after you've decided to leave behind the touring, the 48-hour studio sessions and the cocaine lifestyle, you can at least be assured of royalty cheques dropping through the letter box from record sales and radio airplay in far-flung places.

Perhaps ironically, one of the few public performances David Bowie has made since 2004 was to join David Gilmour on stage at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2007 for a performance of Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne. It was a tribute to Syd Barrett, who'd written the song and had passed away the previous year. Long after the madcap Barrett's sad reclusion from society, Gilmour - who had replaced him in Pink Floyd - continued to ensure he received his royalty cheques at his semi-detached suburban Cambridge home. Legend has it that they had gone uncashed for a number of years.

For the rest of us, unfortunately, we don't have such a lucrative legacy to draw from in our dotage. Indeed, the idea of retirement is an increasingly distant one, thanks to the global financial turmoil which is squeezing private and national pension plans. Inevitably, many of us from the baby boom and post-baby boom will be expected to work, like seaside donkeys, well beyond current statutory retirement age. Unless we are lucky enough to have 43 years of albums to sustain us - which pretty easily answers the question: what would David Bowie do?

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