It’s been nearly a week since the death of David Bowie, and after the initial shock and grief at his passing, a lot of us have acclimatised to this new Bowie free world. I know some people will still say “Oh come on, get a grip”, but I actually feel like some distant relative has died. Maybe a cool bohemian uncle I haven’t seen in a while, but still somebody who has always been there in the background. Bowie’s music quietly changed my life, way back when I was all teenage and impressionable. We can debate how original or not he was at various points in his career, but there wasn’t really anybody like him; at least no one who was like him who was that huge. I can’t even find words to do him justice right now, except this tawdry ramble. Even a 17 year old in my first class this morning knew who he was, and she wasn’t happy about the news either.
You see, Bowie was a huge, important element that we took for granted, like the sun at the centre of the pop culture solar system. It’s a lot darker now he’s gone, and it’s only now we can see how much his work impacted on multiple music genres (and that’s before we consider his contribution to the other arts over the years, particularly his presence in film and fashion and broader cultural impact. He wasn’t lauded among lesbian, gay and transgender circles just because he once wore a dress and makeup. Nobody did that back then, but Bowie kept on doing it, because he wanted to and because it suited his current vision, and why the hell not. Through those bold statements he made a message clear: that it is ok to be different, and as some of us are by default, that’s a powerful and liberating message. He inspired many of us to walk our own path and do it to our own beat, regardless of the naysayers.
His musical journey alone has been quite a ride. From wannabe Mod in mid ‘60s London, to the early singles (including a personal favourite in “I can’t help thinking about me”), to his first top ten hit in 1969 with ‘Space Oddity”, heralding something new and strange as NASA pushed the boundaries out in space; meanwhile Bowie was aiming to reach new inner worlds in his and our personal space. On to the Glam Rock years and the audacious character of Ziggy Stardust and his band The Spiders from Mars; science fiction camp with raw stomping tunes. But unlike his friend and contemporary Marc Bolan, Bowie didn’t stagnate in a tired genre cul-de-sac, as Glam had become by 1975. He instead embraced what he called ‘plastic soul’, taking his cues from American soul music and reinventing himself on the album Young Americans. Soon after there was another reinvention: the introduction of the nihilistic Thin White Duke on Station to Station, followed by his experimental ‘clean up’ period recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger). Into the ‘80s with the deliberately commercial but brilliant Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and the huge singles “Ashes to Ashes”, and “Fashion”, sounding like another new dawn, unlike anything else in the charts, practically inventing New Romanticism and taking the New Wave somewhere even more new. Through to his huge commercial year, 1983, when his re-issues dominated the UK album chart and the new album Let’s Dance reaching No.1 all over the world, with the title single doing the same. Despite (or perhaps because of) the commercially constructed hits like “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, Bowie hit a creative block, that was to produce two mediocre albums in Tonight and Never let Me Down, before his arguable creative renaissance with the band Tin Machine. Soon after, with this increased vitality, came four more studio albums throughout the ‘90s, testing musical avenues as unlikely as Industrial and Drum and Bass music on the Earthling album, and two more albums into the first decade of the 21st Century. However, Bowie’s quiet retirement from live performance then led to an unannounced retirement from recording; with his 2003 album Reality looking increasingly like it might be his last. But Bowie returned, without fanfare, with the excellent The Next Day in 2013, and now, three years later, his epitaph, the astounding Blackstar. As a recent review said, for a 69 year old to be referencing modern Hip-Hop elements is remarkable, but not so for Bowie; we expected it of him, He was a true artist and true artists are interested in the next stage of their exploratory journey, not the past. So it was with him to the very end. He also chose his collaborators very astutely; people who would help him achieve his vision. From Mick Ronson to Robert Fripp, through Eno and Gail Ann Dorsey, he surrounded himself with talents that could make his music work, and who marvelled at Bowie’s creative lead.
His influence on numerous generations, and particularly the generation that spawned Punk and New Wave, can’t be denied. His death has caused an understandable loss in all fans of popular music, practicing musicians and fans alike. I do think one fear is that the world that helped launch Bowie is gone (as a creative brand separate from its creator David Jones). As Billy Bragg pointed out this week, the art schools that helped produce talent like Bowie are a dying concern. As Bragg commented, artists could gain “enough confidence in their own creativity that they were able to go on to find fame and fortune”. Without this motivation, even Bowie admitted he would probably have just been a collector and fan of music. In an increasingly homogenized world, an understandable fear could be that the vital creative avenues to artistic success and the innovative paths are blocked by a society that might no longer allow them.
For now, all I can say is that like millions of fans, my thoughts are with Iman, his family and close friends. Many of us never knew David, and that’s ok, because he spoke to us through his records. As a true potent artist should do, he gave only parts of himself through his music, and remained a mystery and a cipher for his artistic vision. We didn’t know him, but he made us feel like he knew us, through his music. That is a special gift.
I’ve never seen this scale of lament for an artist or musician before, at least from certain quarters, which is testament to his influence and impact I suppose. The cultural divide between those who knew and those who didn’t (and still don’t) has never been so highlighted. As I said, Bowie was sometimes easy to take for granted, in a sense, as he was just always there in our lifetime, like that metaphorical sun at the centre of the popular culture universe. I got used to the idea that he’d always be there. It’s a void that has no real current replacement in my view.
In his last days Bowie conducted himself with real dignity. If it’s true about his health failing over 18 months or more, then I think he was courageous about it. We can learn a lot from his conduct, considering how famous he was. He never chased the lime light in the same way some do. When he stepped off the stage he was quite private, if sociable. No undignified headline chasing. His work ethic was admirable, right up to his last weekend, and also his determination to tie up loose ends. A lot of people don’t get the chance. Make each day count, make peace with folk and bow out in the ‘right’ way.
He was an artist. He really meant it. The recognition he’s getting is deserved. The single of ‘Heroes’ is headed for the top ten for the first time, and he has 23 albums in the top 100 iTunes chart, and at the time of writing is apparently the No.1 best selling artist in the world.
“Oh no love! you’re not alone”, he sang to my teenage ears, “No matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen…I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain. You’re not alone ”.
Through joy and pain, David, you still remind me that I’m not alone, and if that was not enough reason to miss you, if we see or hear your like again it will not be for a very long time.
Safe journey Spaceboy.