tin machine wogan The odd thing about Tin Machine, having finally listened to Tin Machine, is that Bowie’s instincts were dead on. It’s not a mistake at all. He’s listening to the Pixies so he’s in tune with what’s happening in American indie rock; he’s thinking it’s time to strip back the production and make rock music, he wants to make something a bit more confrontational and instinctive… these are all exactly the right ideas for the moment. And yet when he comes to act on those instincts and form his band he ends up with a record of skronky blues rock and some of his worst ever lyrics. Of course you can say he picked the wrong collaborators, but it’s not just that. It really underlines the horrible gulf between knowing what the right move is and actually pulling off that move.

In general when people think about getting older, losing your edge, etc, they would assume that executional competence improves with experience but that the ability to stay in touch, know what to do, falls off. You get better at things but you lose a sense of what’s relevant – which creates a strain of typical middle-aged resentment: how come I, with my vast experience, am ignored in favour of these know-nothings. But I think it’s just as likely to be the other way around. The instincts stay sharp – get cannier, even. It’s turning them into something worthwhile that becomes harder and harder.

If the “Imperial Phase” – the point in your career or life when everything you do seems to come off, where your mistakes really do end up as hidden intentions – is real, then we can imply the existence of its opposite. The Imperial Phase’s shadow, the part where nothing quite works right. The good ideas that turn leaden when you realise them. The prose that grinds instead of flows. The clothes that looked great on someone else. The incisive intervention that’s received as meddling. The shots that don’t come off. That you look a fool for attempting.

Most of the time this decay phase goes unseen, for obvious reasons. Attention is a scarce commodity, so is charity. People turn away. If the phase ends, who is still there to know it? But what we see in Bowie is someone whose Imperial Phase was so inspiring for so many that the amount of goodwill it generated turned out to be inexhaustible. He got as many chances as he needed. He could be written off, but not written out. So you can endure the decline alongside him, instead of just passing by, and then you can see if and how he gets out of it. This is an important thing; the value of tin is higher than it seems.