Arts Entertainments

David Bowie delved into his own past on “Toy”

“This changes nothing.” Colonel Tom Parker made the now-notorious remark when his client, Elvis Presley, died in 1977. Yet the cold-blooded former fairground huckster was right: Presley would be the first of many artists to have a posthumous career that rivalled their mortal one. Death was just one more marketing opportunity.

Something similar is happening with David Bowie, who in the six years since his death has remained a subject of fascination. This month Warner Chappell Music acquired the global publishing rights to his musical catalogue, in a deal thought to be worth more than $250m. Bowie has also been subject to a prolific release schedule since 2016, including 11 live albums, a soundtrack, several EPs and singles, another Best-of compilation and a slew of box sets. “Brilliant Adventure”, the latest of those, contained something genuinely intriguing, however—an original studio album called “Toy”. (The record is also being released as a stand-alone box set this month, under the title “Toy:Box”.)

It is the first time this work has been made officially available in its entirety, though it is not wholly new to devoted Bowie fans. Recorded in 2000 and shelved by Virgin, the musician’s record label at the time, it was leaked online in 2011 and various patchwork versions have circulated ever since. Nor is the material on the album strictly fresh. Most of the songs on “Toy” had been previously recorded by Bowie, albeit before he was famous.

The record differs from all the other posthumous Bowie material in that, instead of being a satellite or an alternative to the core canon, “Toy” straightaway becomes a new and definitive part of it. This was no faded artist trading on past glories, but a reinvigorated one mining what he found valuable in his early missteps—flop singles, forgotten B-sides and unheard demos from the time before Bowie found out just who he was meant to be, when he was just another chancer casting about, hoping to catch the lightning. Evidently his idea was to take seriously songs which had previously been dismissed as curios or juvenilia.

In 2000 Bowie was riding high after a protracted slump. After a phenomenal period spanning the 1970s and early 1980s, the late 1980s and the 1990s had not been kind to him—nor had the critics. “Sit down man: you’re a fucking disgrace,” concluded a review of the second album by his hard-rock band Tin Machine, released in 1991. (The article reportedly reduced Bowie to tears.) He had strayed into that no-man’s-land where a great artist almost inevitably loses their impetus and relevance, but has yet to attain cherished elder status. A joyously received headline slot at the Glastonbury festival in 2000 (pictured) proved a turning-point. No longer making the weather, he could now ride above it.

Bowie’s legacy was assured: he had an audience spanning all ages and an expert and agile band to back him. Who, with all the strength, confidence and experience of maturity, would not fancy a second shot at their younger, more uncertain days? There was, naturally, a danger that the idiosyncratic charm these songs possessed would be crushed out by the professionalism and self-assurance of the star he very much wasn’t when he wrote them; that knowing how things turned out would be fatal to their questing innocence.

But that didn’t happen. The treasure on “Toy” can be found in the tracks about Bowie’s life as teenage bohemian wannabe. “I Dig Everything” catalogues the hectic and novel joys of trying your luck in the big city; “The London Boys” is a marvel of a song depicting that life’s occasionally dangerous downsides. “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is a portrait of the artist as a young and rather maladroit rake, at once droll, self-pitying and possessed of that curious nostalgia the youthful often express for childhood days just gone. Had Bowie written that triad of songs at 53, they’d surely have been seen as revealing his knowing, older eye, as a sensitive, wise and wry reflection on the past. He first recorded all of them before he turned 20.

Yet “Toy” is not just an album about the past. It is an album with layers upon layers of the past wrapped around itself. There is the listener’s perception today—Bowie having departed just after reaching a fresh artistic peak on his album “Blackstar” (2016)—looking back at the Bowie of 2000. There’s the Bowie of 2000 looking back at the Bowie of 1966 with affection and a certain admiration, thinking his younger self was onto something even if the lad didn’t yet know what it was. And there’s the Bowie of 1966, looking back at the schoolboy, at the new arrival in London’s wild playground, at the person he had been only days or weeks before and would never be again. From the very start, one thing Bowie never lacked the courage to do was to turn and face the strange changes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *