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True Meanings: Paul Weller on Bowie, and Bowie by Paul Weller

Paul Weller dropped a lovely new video for his song Bowie earlier today. An affectionate nod to the deceased Dame, the song first appeared on his 14th solo studio album True Meanings back in September.

Apart from David Bowie himself, it’s hard to think of any British solo artist who’s had as varied, long-lasting and determinedly forward-looking a career as Paul Weller. His is a career that always ebbed and flowed between the incisive and the pastoral, one minute joy-riding through a town called Malice, the next punting soulfully down the Cam while caressing a bloke’s ear.

Weller turned 60 earlier this year, and whether or not this milestone – I marked his Sexagenarian ascendance with a Style Council-based article here – was directly related to his decision to make a more sophisticated, toned-down album as True Meanings is hard to tell. 

There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the musical decisions he makes, which is one of the things that makes him such a vital, exciting artist. If anything, he’s got more daring and unpredictable over the last several years. 

His previous album, 2017’s A Kind Revolution, is an eclectic collection of funk-rock; his soundtrack to the British boxing drama, Jawbone – released the same year – was an Eno-esque ambient exercise in trippy Krautrock; and in 2015 he released Saturns Pattern, a thick slab of bluesy hooks mixed with a bit of jazzy psychedelia.

You get the idea. As was Bowie’s wont, ever since Weller junked The Jam he’s felt the need to move on.

With every new Paul Weller record, you can count on great songs delivered in whatever style he feels like diving into at that particular moment.

Rooted in easygoing acoustic arrangements, an understated folk aesthetic runs deep through True Meanings; evoking the rustic, yearning introspection of 1993’s wistful Wild Wood.

Bowie, a deeply moving, pensive pearl co-written with Scottish musician and producer Erland Cooper, is a beautiful, stately example. This isn’t it, but it’s equally as gorgeous.

As its title suggests, Bowie is the curious sight of a British music icon dipping his cap to another legend of our lifetimes. It was clearly inspired by the Blackstar death in 2016 of the titular ch-ch-ch-ch-chameleon, but also addresses change, (sense of) doubt and mortality in general, opening with the ruminative lines

“Do you know there’s no journey? / We’re arriving and departing all the time / You are just mortal like me / God is only just a melody.”

Of course, the Modfather could also be giving advice to his infant son Bowie. The video (below, starring Martin Freeman) would certainly suggest a strong familial element.

Bowie Weller was born on 14 January 2012, making him a Capricorn just like The Dame. Among Weller’s many children, Bowie has a twin, John Paul and an older sister Dylan. Gee, I wonder who they could be named after.

Seasoned Bowie watchers will probably know that one of the most the most famous quotes attributed to their restless celebutante is:

“The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” 

The quote was much-repeated on the Internet after the Dame’s death, though I haven’t managed to source the interview from where it’s supposedly been extracted. I’m conscious that, from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Alan Rickman (who spookily also died from cancer at 69, the same age as Bowie, four days after Bowie, and on Bowie Weller’s sixth birthday) the world wide web is tangled up, full of faked soundbites and philosophical quotations.

It’s not such a big deal because Weller paraphrases the words in a beautifully meditative way it’s impossible not to be moved by them. It’s especially important for music fans to remember in light of Bowie’s shock death. Too often people see death as the “end” of someone’s metaphorical “journey.”

But, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, with the endless Elvis-style repackaging of his core catalogue from Parlophone (the same record label Weller is currently signed to), it’s wrong to say that 10 January 2016 was the end of David Bowie.

White horses couldn’t drag him away.

Musically, there’s a simple, folky guitar laying the groundwork on Bowie, while sumptuous strings – never overbearing – lift the song into elegiac emotional areas relatively unexplored by Weller. And his voice, that burnished, soulful instrument of his, has never sounded better or wiser.

It gave me a bit of a start (!) the first time I heard it, but there’s even an amusing vocal nod to the song’s subject matter just before the one-minute mark, where Weller sings “Make the best of every mo-maahnt!” that evokes the ponderous, deeply mannered croon of Bowie himself. It’s a little out of character, and that kind of theatricality won’t appeal to every Weller fella but I can see why he wanted to slip it in.

At nine minutes into this album promo, Weller discusses the background to Bowie.

The tangled web he weaved; Bowie’s lyricist Erland Cooper has clearly been trawling the web for inspiration. “Make the best of every moment” is another quote from you-know-who, though this attempt at verisimilitude can be verified, coming from an article in the March 2004 issue of Esquire entitled What I’ve Learned. A series of observational bullet points mixing sage wisdom and glib crassness.

Here’s the full paragraph.

“The depressing realisation in this age of dumbing down is that the questions have moved from, ‘Was Nietzsche right about God?’ to, ‘How big was his dick?’ Make the best of every moment. We’re not evolving. We’re not going anywhere.”

In this most personal of odes to a mass pop culture figure, there’s even a brilliantly moving answer back to the departed star himself —“Look up, you’ll see me,” paraphrases “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” the much-discussed opening line of Lazarus, Bowie’s “farewell“ single that was in the charts at the time of his death. But this new song adds the kicker, “We miss you everywhere.” As much awe as Weller clearly holds for Bowie, the creativity of his solo albums suggests that he’s not just an acolyte but a peer.

Though the material isn’t quite as thrustily energetic as The Jam or as wildly adventurous as the ever-changing moods of The Style Council, True Meanings succeeds on its own terms and is in all likelihood my album of the year. These aren’t necessarily Weller’s greatest songs – You’re The Best Thing, That’s Entertainment et al can rest easy – but they are his loveliest; a late career high from one of the most important, courageous songwriters in Britain.

One could say that the deliberately paced, more sensitive approach Weller has taken is a great testament from an artist leaving behind middle age and beginning to settle down. That certainly could be the case with most other musicians of his age and stature; George Michael’s Older album from 1996 being the obvious soul searching comparison.

And while a lot of the reflection in the lyrics is indicative of an artist taking stock, it would be ill-advised to think that this is what we should automatically expect from him in future releases. Knowing the Modfather, he’ll probably surprise us with something completely different next year. We should expect nothing less.

Steve Pafford 

BONUS BEATS: Fan or foe?

“A lot of rough working-class kids really adored Bowie. But even though he was androgynous and camp, he was held in such high esteem. Round my way there were a few blokes who were brave enough to wear a bit of make-up of a Saturday night, which is chancing your fucking arm in Woking. But Bowie had something. Usually a lot of those tough kids would never have listened to someone like him.”

The mid ’70s Woking wonder

Despite them both being former mods and avowed modernists, Paul and David had a bit of a feud over the years that escalated in 2006 after he described the older man’s then output as ‘pish’. As gloriously outspoken as ever, Weller made his warm-spirited remarks after being reminded that the Brits lifetime achievement award he’d just picked up had been awarded to Bowie ten years earlier.

Though not a huge fan of the effete glam rock that cemented The Dame’s status in the early 1970s, the former Jam frontman rolled back a bit a couple of years later, admitting during press duties for 22 Dreams that Ziggy Stardust was a favourite album, also explaining in an interview with MOJO magazine that

“Whatever gripes I’ve had about Bowie in the past, Low’s been a constant since I bought it in 1977.”

Handbags at Dawn’s gaff

The pair made up and became online pen pals of a sort. Unlike The Dame, enthusiastic embracer of technology, according to former friend and biographer Paolo Hewitt, his Modjesty professes to hate the internet. Bowie read the other thin white one’s comments and emailed him to say thanks, ending his message with a typically self-referential “Nice one, Paul. Can I have my haircut back now?”

Weller told the NME in 2013 that “I think everyone is influenced by him. Low, which is the first of his Berlin albums, has always been my favourite record, and even more so recently the more I’ve listened to it.” Then, in a Quietus feature two years later, he selected Low as one of his top 13 albums of all time, alongside the more obvious Beatles and much less expected Tame Impala, keen to exhibit his fanboy credentials to journalist Mat Colegate:

“I bought all of Bowie’s records from Hunky Dory onwards, up until Scary Monsters. I thought every record was fantastic, just groundbreaking. Whether or not I liked the music, I still respected the fact it was out there and different.”

Colegate expressed his surprise at the choice of Low, telling Paul, “It’s one of those albums that you tend to hear of as an influence from more electronic contemporaries of yours. People like OMD or The Human League.”

“They fucking wish, man! I fucking love Low. I remember being in Dingwalls, it must have been about ’76 or whenever, and I was with Joe Strummer and Sound And Vision come on. We were like: ‘Fucking hell!’ Just to hear that drum sound. We’d never heard anything like that before. At the time it would have perhaps been something that you wouldn’t have expected me to like. I like the B-side as well, all the instrumental stuff. I love all those deconstructed pop songs on side one. Very short and in and out, they just burst in and then they finish. Sound And Vision, Be My Wife, with that mad bar-room piano.”

“What I like about those songs is that it’s like you’ve walked in mid-conversation or mid-thought, so suddenly it just changes tack. I like the idea of that. I think there’s a little bit of influence, if I may say so, on some of the lyrics I’ve written recently. Where it’s almost like dipping in mid-stream and then they dart off and they’re about something else. Hopefully people will find their own meaning in them.”

BONUS 2: Get me.

The only times I’ve attended the Brits were in 1996 and 2009, where, with delicious serendipity, Weller won the best male artist gong on both occasions. The first, where Iggy Pop (above) announced and accepted his award, was the one where Bowie was the recipient of the big gong mentioned earlier, though was totally upstaged by Jarvis Cocker stage invading an horrendous performance by Michael Jackson.

Ironically, Paul didn’t turn up at either event, so other than the off-stage times I bumped into him taking his kids swimming at Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre (detailed here) or shopping – buoyantly, I must say – in the basement of the now sadly defunct HMV Oxford Street, I didn’t get to see him as Paul Weller the performer until his superb Sydney show earlier this year. 

BONUS 3: They say it’s her birthday.

It also happens to be my mother’s 70th birthday today. Unlike my father, she’s never been all that keen on Paul or David, but I’ll dedicate the Bowie lyrics to her anyway. But before that, a coincidental cover: in June 2012 PW recorded a version of The Beatles’ Birthday for Paul McCartney’s own 70th, and was available for download for one day only. Ta-dah!

Many heliocentric returns, mum.

Do you know there’s no journey?

We’re arriving and departing all the time

You were just mortal like me

God is only just a melody

Make the best of every moment

We are not evolving

Or going anywhere

And it’s fine

How can the world lose his name?

Everyone is bawling again

Burn the cross or leave it

Look above, you’ll see me

We miss you everywhere

Awaken all the ghosts in your mind

Speak of all the good that you find

Live and learn that life is not unkind

Understand the demons that you fight

I know it just seems cold to leave see

We all have to go

Believe me

But letting go

Is thanking you

Songwriters: Erland Cooper / Paul John Weller

Bowie lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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