After his patchy eighties - "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", the misunderstood Tin Machine period - the world wasn't exactly holding its breath for a new album, when "Black Tie, White Noise" was announced in 1993, and news that Nile Rodgers, who'd produced his bestselling "Lets Dance" was at the helm, didn't really help either - as despite its commercial success it had appeared to precipitate Bowie's decline. Yet when "Black Tie, White Noise" came out it was an artistic return, that also gave commercial success - going to number one in the UK charts. Moreover, it saw Bowie engaging not just with music, but with his own music. In some ways its a great example of a mature artist looking over his career and not picking the best bits as such, but remembering what different elements worked for him. So we have a return of Ronson, who would pass away later that year, but had done a Bowiefication on Morrissey a year or so before (Bowie would cover Morrissey on the album), the updated R&B (Al B. Sure! on the title track) echoed both his work on "Lets Dance" and his longstanding dance interest on "Young Americans", "I feel free", a Cream cover could have been seen as an updating of Pin Ups, the instrumental interludes that he'd written for his wedding were reminiscent of the Eno Berlin years....
There comes a point when an artist can stop looking for new things, new places to go, but rather can go back to their own points of influence, their own career, and start exploring paths that they either abandoned too early, or which have a resonance. Neil Young, Eno, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are all artists who - after apparently searching for new sounds for years and across albums at some point came to the conclusion that there could be honour in looking back; and that the looking back could be productive. Thus "Time out of Mind", "Ragged Glory", "Harvest Moon", "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" and "New York", like "Black Tie, White Noise" and "1. Outside" could be seen as - if not career highlights - at least positive additions to the personal canon.
For less successful or iconic artists its no less the case. And I think it applies to writers as well as to musicans - and probably to artists and film makers as well. I'm not talking about retreads - "Godfather 3" etc. - so much as there comes a point in life, career, where the searching is different than it was before. Its not that you know everything, but that many of the touchstones that you have explored or want to explore have already been exploited by your art. Often, I think it is the coordinating of these touchstones that becomes the key thing. A good example would be one of my favourite writers, the late Bruce Chatwin. Before "In Patagonia" he had been a travel writer for a sunday paper, and worked at an auction house. Yet his nascent writings - a grand, large book about nomads - that he'd been writing during these years, failed to emerge. A reading of his letters (more often postcards) and biography gives us the genuine Chatwin - a voice that would be recognisably reproduced in the travel books "In Patagonia" and "The Songlines" but also in the fictions "Utz" and "On the Black Hill." The obsessions - travel, nomads, collections, history, home, outsiders, solitude, rootlessness - are there in the letters and postcards from the sixties and seventies; many of the places he visited - that intrigued him were to reappear in his fiction and his other writings - yet it was the synthesizing of these that mattered. Chatwin died too young, but left a near perfect selection. There was no final act for him.
Where there isn't a great publication history, where writing has to be fitted in alongside the work, the home, the family, the children, illness, addiction, whatever, it can be the same thing. At times I've been struggling of late to understand what I want to write about, what is/are my "subjects" - partly because I have sometimes covered these, but also because currently I'm not in a state of mind where worldly concerns really explode into my fiction or poetry, rather I'm increasingly taken by the structural idea, the process of doing, even the granularity of words and language - these are metaphysical concepts rather than themes or subjects. Yet over the last few days I started something new, again, where I realised that I was pulling together various strands that go back to before I wrote my first novel, back to concepts I first explored when I was sixteen or seventeen, in unpublished books of scribbles - my equivalent of the "nomads" book is a story called "A novice in the land of fakirs" - a Burroughsian scrabble of words and ideas that never cohered into anything; yet remains there in my past thinking.
Sometimes, its fine to look not at other writers, but to our troubled, troubling past and wonder whether we are not our greater influence. This time, late in the day, with maybe some of the tools to better achieve what we were reaching for first time out.
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