Released: 8 January 2013
The Next Day
Gerry Leonard: guitar
Tony Levin: bass guitar
Henry Hey: piano
Zachary Alford: drums
Tony Visconti: strings
‘Where Are We Now?’ was the lead single from David Bowie’s penultimate studio album The Next Day. The song and video were released without prior announcement on Bowie’s 66th birthday, 8 January 2013.
I didn’t hear it until it came on the radio, but I remembered a discussion I had with him about it. He’d said he had this idea of writing a song about his time in Berlin. That was a very intense period for him: in all the time I’ve known him, he’s often talked about that period, and he’s not something who’s given to looking back at the past. It obviously left a very, very strong imprint on him. And boy, what a beautiful song.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
Bowie had been mostly out of the public eye since the end of A Reality Tour in 2004, which was curtailed by health problems. He had not released any new music since the previous year’s Reality. There had been a steady stream of rumours of retirement, and expectations of new music were low.
The lyrics of ‘Where Are We Now?’ recalled Bowie’s time living in Berlin from 1976 to 1978. The period was one of his most creative, and saw him work on the albums Low and “Heroes”, as well as Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust For Life.
After initial staying at the Hotel Gehrus, from the summer of 1976 Bowie and his assistant Coco Schwab lived in an apartment at Haupstrasse 155 in the city’s Schöneberg district. For a time his next-door neighbour was Iggy Pop and his girlfriend Esther Friedmann.
Bowie and Iggy relocated to Berlin ostensibly to kick drugs and refocus artistically, and quickly found inspiration in the city, which was a welcome contrast to the USA.
It was an irreplaceable, unmissable experience and probably the happiest time in my life up until that point. Coco, Jim and I had so many great times. But I just can’t express the feeling of freedom I felt there. Some days the three of us would jump into the car and drive like crazy through East Germany and head down to the Black Forest, stopping off at any small village that caught our eye. Just go for days at a time. Or we’d take long all afternoon lunches at the Wannsee on winter days. The place had a glass roof and was surrounded by trees and still exuded an atmosphere of the long gone Berlin of the twenties. At night we’d hang with the intellectuals and beats at the Exile restaurant in Kreutzberg. In the back they had this smoky room with a billiard table and it was sort of like another living room except the company was always changing.
Sometimes we’d go shopping at KaDeWe, the giant department store in the Centre of West Berlin, which had the hugest food counters anyone could imagine with displays that are only imaginable in a country which either must have been seriously deprived of food at one time or where the populace just plain likes to eat a lot. We’d stock up occasionally on what felt like luxuries at the time like chocolates or a small tin of caviar. One day, while we were out, Jim had come in and ate everything in the fridge we had spent all morning shopping for. It was one of the few times that Co and I were truly mad at him. I could write a lot more on all this… but.
I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away. Maybe I was getting better. Jim decided to stay on a while longer as he had pretty much hitched up with a girl he’d met there and had by now gotten his own apartment, next door to ours. Then Elephant Man came up, which caused me to be in the US for a considerable spell. Then Berlin was… over.
The slow pace and nostalgic lyrics of ‘Where Are We Now?’, coupled with the rumours of Bowie’s ill health, led many to believe that it was intended as a valedictory farewell. This was untrue, as producer Tony Visconti made clear during promotional interviews for the single and album.
They’re categorically not true. He does not have cancer. If there’s one thing I would like to dispel it’s the rumours about his ill-health. He’s incredibly fit and takes care of himself. Obviously after the heart attack he wasn’t too thrilled, but he has an amazing family and friends.
The Times, 12 January 2013
Although Bowie did no promotion for The Next Day, he broke his silence on one occasion. The novelist Rick Moody contacted the singer asking for a list of words to help elucidate the themes of the album. Moody was astounded to receive a list of 42 words from Bowie, which he considered relevant to the album.
I persuaded Bowie, somehow, to give me a sort of a work flow diagram for The Next Day, because I wanted to think about it in light of what he was thinking about it, I wanted to understand the lexicon of The Next Day, and so I simply asked if he would provide this list of words about his album, assuming, like everyone else waving madly trying to get his attention, that there was not a chance in hell that I would get this list, because who the fuck am I, some novelist killing time writing occasionally about music, and yet astonishingly the list appeared, and it appeared without further comment, which is really excellent, and exactly in the spirit of this album, and the list is far better than I could ever have hoped, and it’s exactly like Bowie, at least in my understanding of him, impulsive, intuitive, haunted, astringent, and incredibly ambitious in the matter of the arts; Bowie is a conceptual artist, it seems to me, who just happens to work in the popular song, and he wants to make work that goes somewhere new, and this is amply demonstrated by the list.
Bowie’s list was presented with no further explanation, yet it was soon noted that the 42 words were divisible by the 14 tracks on the album, and the lyrical themes in the songs do appear to correspond with the sequence of the list. For ‘Where Are We Now?’, the given words were: Mauer, Interface, Flittings.