It’s a sad day.
As you may have been able to tell by my sporadic social media offerings and instagram and snapchats, I’m not good at condensing my thoughts into snippets of 140 characters. I’m a long form kind of guy when it comes to things that deserve it, and who could be more deserving than a man, musician, and artist as prolific as David Bowie.
Where can you even start, do you talk about his music? About his plethora of personas? His influence on fashion? His acting? The legacy of his songs and their lyrics? People better qualified than me to talk about those things shall talk about them, so instead I’m going to go personal on this personal blog and talk about what Bowie meant to me.
I couldn’t tell you when I first heard David Bowie, at least not a song that I knew was by him. Whereas most of my other musical tastes (The Beatles, Led Zep, Pink Floyd etc.) came from my dad, he was never really into his Bowie, so I grew up for a long time knowing little about him outside of Let’s Dance and Changes.
Come my teenage years however, and all of that changed. Some of you may remember the series Life on Mars and later on Ashes to Ashes, 70s and 80s set cop series dripping in period detail, and that went for the music as well. Every band you could think of were on there, Wings, ELO, T Rex, Roxy Music, but the stand out for me was the title track. Life on Mars. I had to search for it straight away, what was this alien ballad? What is up with those lyrics, “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”? It was weird, but it was fascinating. Drawn in by the lush instrumentation, the stuttering drum beat, and the reedy yet rich voice of this odd man.
The rest after that, as they say, is history. I fell into a Bowie black hole. I spent hours and hours on wikipedia and youtube looking up his old albums and finding the songs, searching the lyrics, seeing what meaning lay hidden in their seeming nonsense. Bowie was a treasure trove, and for someone like me who likes to listen to a bit of everything, his amalgamation and adaptation of various styles was just mind blowing. There was just straight up old school rock like The Jean Genie, there was art pop, there was jazz, there were grimy fast tracks like Scary Monsters and sweeping ballads like Drive-In Saturday, and between them all Bowie’s voice flitted like a chameleon between husky and deep, operatic and a nasal drawl.
He took staid genres and injected them with a new lease of life, with experimental song structures and instrumentation, squalls of saxophone, and credit must go to his key collaborators like Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, and Brian Eno (among many others) who helped fuel his vision.
Bowie took everything I loved about 70s and 80s music and took it to the next level, with his songs revealing new details and layers of meaning on every subsequent listen. From then on he became a solid part of my music collection, whereas other bands have come and gone along with my phases, Bowie is a fixture. His music is something I can go to time and again, in times of joy, in times of sorrow, in times of frustration, on those lazy, rainy Sundays when you just want to put on Absolute Beginners and sit in a comfy chair with a good book.
He’s soundtracked my life through my angsty teen years, where I loved the rockier aspects of Ziggy Stardust and Rebel Rebel, through to pre-drinks at university where I’d, perhaps unwisely, turn off the bland radio pop people preferred and replace it with Let’s Dance, and more recently when I started listening to some more out there music like Sunn O))) and Swans I found myself drawn to his legendary Berlin trilogy of albums, the most famous of which (Heroes) I bought on vinyl one rainy afternoon in Kreuzberg.
In Berlin his music took on a whole new dimension. Anyone who has heard the album, or even the song, Heroes will know about its relation to the tumultuous recent history of the German capital. Bowie encapsulated the mood of cautious optimism perfectly, delivering experimental rock, a fist in the air anthem in the form of the title track, and then switching gears entirely for the second side with some truly haunting instrumental pieces like Moss Garden and Neukolln.
In 2014 Berlin celebrated 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and I swear I heard somebody playing Heroes on just about every street I walked down. Those now immortal lines, “We can be heroes, just for one day,” ringing out in 2014 as they did in 1977, a maxim for all of those longing for a life of freedom.
But it’s the attitude that Bowie inspired that stuck with me the most. The idea that anything is possible, the idea that popular music can be free to break out of constraints of genre and convention, the idea that you can reinvent yourself no matter your age, the idea that pop can and should be a conduit for so much more, for observations of the self along with observations of the world, that high art and mainstream media could exist side by side, without pretensions and without derision from either side.
Bowie personified an ageless rebellion, angst, ennui, putting into words and music the sense of detachment that we’ve all felt from time to time, yet also an unbridled sense of joy, of freedom, love, friendship, brotherhood, decadence and hedonism. He was an alien and an everyman, straddling the line between distant observer and lifelong friend with unparalleled ease.
As he leaves us with his parting gift of Blackstar, an album of haunting beauty and incredible reinvention given the age of its maker, Bowie once again reveals layers to himself and his music. The lyrics throughout deal with death, immortality, with Bowie deftly weaving in references to everything from modern geopolitics to Elizabethan theatre.
After putting it off last night, I watched the video for his new single Lazarus this morning with the news weighing heavy on his mind, and I unapologetically cried. Bowie writhes in a bed, singing “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” devastating lines in light of the revelation that he had been battling cancer for 18 months.
But instead of lying down and taking it, David Bowie gave the world a new album and gave it his all. At the end of the video he clambers into a closet in an outfit reminiscent of his 70s days, shutting the door behind him, and that’s how he leaves us in real life.
A true artist to the end, a traveller from the stars like the Starman he sang of, coming down to live among us like The Man Who Fell to Earth, transporting us to horizons unknown with his music, before returning to a cosmic abode.
Rest in peace David Bowie, you will never be forgotten.