This post will in all likelihood be buried in the avalanche of words written about the life and art of David Bowie. Which is as it should be – there are literally millions of people trying to articulate what he meant to them, not to mention a whole battalion of takes of varying temperatures on his influence on music, art, literature etcetera, being written right now. And he’s earned each and every one of them. There’ll be better informed and better written pieces on him published in the coming days and months than this one.
But I’m going to write something anyway. This is no time for pulled punches or half measures. I feel like getting What Would Bowie Do? tattooed on the inside of my eyelids as a reminder every time I catch myself being half hearted, being less than my entire self. If I’d done that when I was 15 I’d probably not be stuck doing administrative work for 37 hours a week, totting up each wasted hour I’ll never see again while staring listlessly into excel spreadsheets. Because Bowie would just go ahead and do it, wouldn’t he? Of course he would. He was David fucking Bowie.
And besides – this is supposed to be a music blog. If I can’t write about the death of David Bowie what the fuck can I write about?
First off let me level with you: I’ve never been the biggest Bowie fan. Which may not be the best way to start a tribute. I’ve always been told he was the ultimate album guy but none of them have really grabbed me in their entirety. But by god those individual tracks. Staton to Stations, Life on Mars, Space Oddity, Always Crashing in the Same Car, Ashes to Ashes, Heroes – fucking Heroes! My life has been full of amazing Bowie moments. As I’m sure have yours. As I’m sure have everyones.
I’ve never really had a Bowie period though. I’ve never gorged on Bowie’s music the way I have other artists I’ve loved. And yet when I switched on the news this morning I felt myself welling up. And when I went to start my morning routine and I heard the opening bars of Heroes drifting from the other end of the flat where my girlfriend had started her own tribute I broke down and wept. With this piece I’m trying get to the heart of what caused such a reaction more than anything. I don’t cry like that easily. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I do cry easily – ask my girlfriend for the list of movies that I’ve shed a tear over the end credits and you’re in for a long and embarrassing list. But full on sobbing like that…I’ve lived through real loss and trauma that haven’t caused such drama. So what gives?
As a kid you want to bury your parents’ idols. That’s just the way the wheel turns – you want something new, something to call your own. You want to tear everything down and start again. When I was young Bowie was the guy with the inappropriate crotch bulge in Labyrinth. When you’re too young for irony that ain’t cool. And my main exposure to his music was his presence at every back yard barbecue, creating an association in my mind with middle aged men gorging themselves on Carling and charcoaled burgers. Which is even less cool. So he had to go.
I was an idiot so in my early teens, merrily lauding 30-something men in baggy jeans grunting about teenage angst on MTV instead. We all make mistakes, right? It’s a good job the world according to 16 year old Jamie never got made. It would have been a dark, dark place.
Thankfully the thing about some of those idols canonised by the people who were young before you were is that they refuse to stay buried. And few people have raged against the dying of the light quite like Bowie did. Even in the 90s, his least well remembered period, he was a constant presence, a spectre that insinuated himself into so many things I did deem Suitably Cool. One of my fiercest loves as a teen was Marilyn Manson; and for all intents and purposes there was Bowie on the cover of Mechanical Animals. Manson got bored of the hard rock act and attempted a reinvention, hoping to steal Bowie’s moves and recast himself as the man who fell to earth. I guess he thought no one woud notice but even as a kid not versed in rock history I knew where that shtick came from. Not long after as an anxious, lonely, frightened teen Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral became my bible and there was Bowie again, this time in person, duetting with Trent Reznor on I’m Afraid of Americans and touring with him in the US. On that tour NIN played second fiddle despite their popularity because Reznor knew the idea of Bowie as his support was utterly ludicrous. How could I not pay attention when Trent Reznor deemed himself less worthy than this guy?
Soon after I start my journey away from the multiplex (not that Barnsley’s 2 screen cinema can really be classed as such) and start investigating weirder cinema and tape Lynch’s Lost Highway from channel 4 one night. I settle down for a life changing viewing and there he is again, singing the magnificent I’m Deranged over the iconic night-time highway shot that opens and closes the film. Reznor did the soundtrack to that too so t soon found it’s way into my CD collection and over the years Bowie’s sad, soaring vocals get etched into my soul.
Later when I start to delve into the history of music I dabble with punk for a while and he shows up again, right there on the mixing boards for Raw fuckin’ Power of all things. He may not have done a great deal (legend has it the label demanded he remix it or they wouldn’t release it so Iggy brought a mix to him recorded on just three tracks. Unable to change much Bowie just moved the vocals up or down in the mix and sent it to the label pretty much unchanged) but I didn’t know that. I just thought, “How is this guy everywhere?!” Then when I’m delving deeper and discovering Krautrock and Komische he’s there once again, sending Eno in to steal fire from the avant garde gods for his much lauded Berlin period. Even in my favourite piece of escapism as a lonely kid, videogames, I couldn’t escape Bowie: he turned up on forgotten Dreamcast game Omikron: Nomad Soul. Which was a car wreck, sure, but it stuck with me: I still remember seeing his weird avatar in there singing tracks from Hours one Saturday afternoon and being fascinated. I was sure I was seeing the start of some new multimedia kind of pop star. But I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
And this is to say nothing of those he influenced, of all the records in my collection that owe him a debt, of all the interviews I read with heroes passing and permanent who have paid homage to his genius. I never had a real Bowie phase but I learned everything about him without ever needing one. He was like Woody Allen’s Zelig, turning up at all the important musical events of his lifetime. The key difference being of course that Zelig is a fool; Bowie would have loved for us to believe he was that naive. That it was all some kind of happy accident.
But of course it wasn’t. He may have been by all accounts a delight to know but there was a Machiavellian genius at work behind that grin of his. He didn’t get and stay famous for several decades by mere chance. He’s often referred to as a chameleon but magpie is more accurate – if he saw something shiny and popular he stole it. Shamelessly so. This quote (which was passed around Twitter a lot today) says it all:
He showed his talent for subtle mimicry on Hunky Dory – aping Bob Dylan (Song for Bob Dylan) and Lou Reed (Queen Bitch) on back to back songs and making their sounds his. Just one off riffs on his new friends at the time perhaps but they foreshadowed his various reinventions as brooding Berlin krautrock king or shiny 80s popstar. And less successfully 90s drum n’ bass rock fusion innovator or his short lived ‘Plastic Soul’ period. Even on Blackstar his defiant, triumphant final bow, he’s riffing on other peoples ideas. The title track features programmed drums that lean toward latter period Radiohead, whilst Girl Loves Me sees Bowie playing round with the cadences and rhythms of a millennial pop starlet, rolling them around on his tongue, seeing if he could bend something new to his whims. One last time.
Because whatever he took became his. At the risk of being trite – genius steals. As he said himself: “My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.” He did what every weird kid wants to do and take their feelings of loneliness and otherness and turn them into art and become a star. That urge existed before Bowie but he gave it shape in a way no one else had before he came along. Whatever mask he wore it was just the next act in his show, different ways to tell his own story. It didn’t matter who wore them before him.
And so it come as no surprise that he turned even the curtain call of his life into part of the performance. Watching the video for Lazarus, knowing his voice is beaming from a body ravaging itself, singing;
This way or no way
You know I’m be free
Just like that bluebird
Ain’t that just like me?
How can you not be heartbroken? How can you not be full of joy? And that video – Bowie laying bandaged in a hospital bed singing to the sky, frantically scribbling in a book before shambling backwards, shorn of his costume, into a closet and closing the door behind him. Only Bowie, for whom the line where the man ended and his art began was forever blurred, could make his own terminal illness part of his art, his legacy, his myth.
The sheer volume of the outpouring of grief at his passing has been overwhelming, but it’s sources have been the most heartwarming for me. Musicians, of course, have paid tribute: icons and also-rans of metal, post-rock, folk, punk, jazz, blues. Hip hop artists, pop stars, singer-songwriters, DJs, drone artists. But also comedians, actors, politicians, astronauts, prime ministers, massive international bodies, people from every corner of society, all opening up with love and affection for one beautiful graceful weirdo who made us all feel better about our own private strangeness.
I’ve often quoted Lester Bangs when discussing the way popular music has splintered into the myriad niches we all dwell in today, “you and I will never agree on anything the way people agreed on Elvis.” It’s a great quote that now more than ever cuts to the heart of the loss of big, unifying stars in popular culture. The world is full of great music but is running short on truly communal experiences. That’s the rub with an age of endless choice and an era where the audience is the star, where we don’t define ourself as a fan of x or y but take a plethora of artists and wear them like badges. They’re there to serve us – we’re not here to hold them up to the light anymore. Which is no bad thing perhaps as it leads to so many wonderful sounds and brilliant smaller experiences – but is undeniably not without it’s downsides. As each genuine bona fide star passes our collective culture gets poorer, even as our micro-cultures get ever richer. Lester clearly didn’t expect Bowie to make it this far. Few did back then. But now he’s gone I’m not sure you and I will ever agree on anything again the way we all agreed on Bowie.
I think that’s where the tears came from. Because the world lost something it won’t ever see again. Something precious and beautiful and perfectly, wonderfully strange. And even though he had the chance to choreograph his exit, to do it on his terms, in a way that few ever have, that doesn’t soften the blow. Nothing can. That’s just how death is. Art can’t save you from it. But it can make our time here a hell of a lot more fun.
Thanks for everything, David.