Where Are We Now?

They say that only the good die young, whereas the bad always seem to live forever. I guess this rule also applies to David Bowie, an unequivocal musical genius whose passing at the age of 69 on the 10th of January still seems way too premature. I’d like to think that the Grim Reaper is catching all sorts of hell for this in heaven as we speak while Bowie is already off in the corner being hounded by offers to play Jesus’ birthday party and whatever the equivalent of The 02 is in the afterlife. I assume that his “no more live shows” declaration was rendered null and void by his death but who knows? Furthermore, if anyone has figured out how to, literally, resurrect himself, it’s Bowie. There’s always the chance he could be back up on earth and wandering the streets of London, New York or Berlin by St. Patrick’s Day.

So your Facebooks/Twitters/Snapchats/whatevers are likely to be filled with tributes to the late, great David Bowie for the foreseeable future and sorry if I’m adding a further distraction from the endless march of cat memes and “Gosh, This Bernie Sanders Guy Sure is Fantastic!” posts filling up your various feeds. If you’re unfamiliar with this “weird, old man with the multicolored eyes,” well, you oughta be ashamed of yourself and shouldn’t be allowed to listen to a single second more of Adele’s sonic wails until you’ve heard the entirety of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust at least once.

But for those who have been listening to Bowie’s music since you were a kid (or a teenager or an adult), I urge you to give The Next Day a shot.

No Bowie album can be considered “overlooked” but this one is likely to be largely forgotten in the days to come. It’s not his final album and it’s not his best but I think it’s the best one he recorded after 1980’s Scary Monsters. Yes, that’s a bold declaration and might even be considered sacrilege by fans who think his poppy ’80s material is grossly underrated or for whom his meandering ’90s concept albums are masterpieces.

The Next Day is a bittersweet and relatively straightforward rock album filled with insanely listenable tracks that range from the beautiful “Valentine’s Day” to the roaring title track. Then there’s “Where Are We Now?”, which I consider one of the finest songs he ever recorded. Here’s the (very weird) video for the tune.

Musically, it’s a pretty conventional song or about as conventional a song can get when it’s been written and recorded by David Bowie. My interpretation of the lyrics, which seem to tell a coherent narrative, leads me to conclude that it’s autobiographical. “Where are We Now?” is apparently about a reclusive man living in Berlin who decides to take a walk one day by himself. He’s lived a full life (because he’s David Bowie) but he’s in the twilight of his years and he’s feeling pretty lousy about everything. There’s regrets and memories nipping at the corners of his mind like (diamond?) dogs and there’s no escaping the fact that he’d much rather still be 25 than in his late 60s. The song is directed towards an unknown person, maybe his wife, the model Iman, or their daughter or someone else entirely.

So there’s Bowie in an altogether terrible mood but he finds himself able to slink about the city without being noticed and navigate the U-Bahn without too much trouble. The song includes mentions of Dschungel, a cocktail bar, KaDeWe, Berlin’s epic department store, and a few other locales so at least he’s getting to see some of the sights but they seem to only bring him further pain. Maybe he had a great time in these places in his younger years but all that’s gone now.

Throughout the song, he keeps uttering the words “walking the dead,” further suggesting that he’s being haunted by memories, old friends who have passed or faded from his life and God only knows what else. A sense of mourning pervades the song and the chorus includes the refrain “where are we now?”

Sounds like a real hoot, huh? But at the end of the song, Bowie throws out a curve ball. Up until this point, “Where are We Now” is about as cheerful as a wake for a kitten and any other songwriter might have concluded the track with its enigmatic narrator jumping off the top of the Fernsehturm. Instead, the song concludes with these lines:

Where are we now?
Where are we now?
The moment you know
You know, you know

As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you

Like many great songs, the lyrics are seemingly simple and to the point but you could lose hours trying to unravel what they’re really all about. You could interpret them as “eh, Bowie cheers himself up with a cheesy ‘love is all you need’ declaration” but there’s those, repeated, bits about sun, fire and rain, which could serve as a metaphor for passion, a lack of it or something else entirely

I’d like to think that, ultimately, this is a song about a man who, while insanely rich and famous, is still very, very weary. All that stuff hasn’t brought him anything other than misery, whereas the loved ones in his life have done the opposite. He realizes this by the end the tune and heads home, having confronted the past and vanquished his various demons (for now or forever).

Given that Bowie spent the final years of his life largely out of the public eye, I think my math checks out but don’t take my word for it. There’s also the question of *when* he wrote the song. If it followed his cancer diagnosis, that makes it all the more poignant and dramatic.

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