I tend to shy away a bit from the whole visible grief thing when a famous person passes away. I don’t want to judge anyone for partaking in public expression of sadness or mourning, it’s just something I feel personally uncomfortable with. When someone dies who is famous I don’t tend to feel depressed about it. I don’t know the person so it doesn’t leave a void in my life and in a world of 24 hour news and celebrity saturation, someone notable passes away pretty much daily – that’s what happens – people live and then they die. I’m largely desensitised to it, even if it’s an artist I really admire. So with Mr Bowie, the fact I was shocked meant I was also shocked that I was shocked. As weird as that may sound.
I think because I’d been revisiting Bowie’s work a lot in 2015 he was on my mind a lot. And then, with the build-up to his new, and as it turns out final album, because I had been listening to a lot of his music, I was really, really excited to hear what he would come up with next, particularly as ‘The Next Day’ had proven such an enjoyable record. When ‘Blackstar’ the song arrived, I studied it in real awe, considering what a progressive statement it represented, and then, with the release of the album, I binged on it, trying to get my head around how, once again, he had managed to create, alongside Tony Visconti, something so sonically rich, challenging but still accessible enough to get me hooked instantly. I listen to a lot of music I really enjoy, much of it being new music, but it is rare these days that music makes me genuinely excited. Blackstar did just that. I was excited not simply because this was the sound of an artist I love displaying his obvious mastery over his medium, but also because of the potential it represented. What would he come up with next? What great music could we expect to hear in the coming years? Thus when it was suddenly announced Bowie had passed away, yes, I did, to put it bluntly, feel really shit.
Media coverage of Bowie’s life tended to spew out the same types of information, none of it irrelevant or insignificant, indeed, all of it generally important knowledge, but the cumulative effect being, ironically enough, given his tendency to be very different things at different times, to give us one definitive Bowie that will live for a long time in the mass mindset. Thus to write about the man and what he represented is challenging. It has been done, and then some, in the wake of his passing, and comprehensively so. But with this music blog, hopefully beginning to pick up steam in 2016, it felt wrong not to mark the influence of a man who has loomed large in our lifetimes. The only way I can think to approach it is to communicate what Bowie means to me personally.
Much of the coverage of Bowie’s life began with the young David being interviewed as part of a segment concerning men with long hair. As someone who listened to alternative rock in the 90s and dressed accordingly, I could relate to Bowie’s exasperation at being singled out simply for wishing to wear hair longer than the majority of his peers. Watching the aforementioned footage hammered home how, even when it comes to long hair, Bowie had already been there and done it, and suffered the flak. I felt a kinship with him, be it after the fact. Another key event in the Bowie story, in the way the media tells it anyhow, was when, during an appearance on television, dressed radically and androgynously, he placed his arm around Mick Ronson. Seen today the act appears very tame, but then apparently it was perceived as extremely suggestive and some obviously felt threatened by it. When I was young, in addition to the long hair, I would sometimes wear eye liner and nail varnish. Part of me liked the look of stars who embraced aspects of glam I guess, but I think really it was more about trying to wind people up, an overriding desire to actively challenge people’s perceptions. Again, watching footage of Bowie placing his arm around Ronson, I felt kinship but after the fact.
For my generation, it probably wasn’t Bowie as Ziggy who made us explore questions revolving around gender and sexuality, at least not directly. If Bowie did influence us in this sense it was probably more likely down to seeing the film ‘Labyrinth’ as kids. Ostensibly a movie for children, there might well have been complaints regarding the effect Bowie’s predatory character could have had on impressionable young minds, given the overwhelming whiff of subversion about him. Perhaps there was opposition, I don’t remember. But what I do remember was, though a box office disappointment, Bowie offered the same otherworldly presence fans of Ziggy must have experienced the first time around, in essence, he was opening a window on a world that was weirder and more wonderful than one might have previously envisaged. I remember less about what actually happened in the film now and more simply the spaced out feeling it gave me. Later it was fitting the televised adaptation of ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, with Bowie contributing music and also directly influencing the character of Charlie Kay, played expertly by Steven Mackintosh, was also to leave its mark on me, particularly the sex scenes, which were graphic for the time, especially for national television.
Then of course there was my adolescent journey of musical discovery. Not only were my friends and I passionate about delving into the music of our parents’ generation, of which many Bowie albums, my personal favourite being ‘Hunky Dory’, were cornerstones, but Bowie was an ever present contemporary force as well. When I first heard The Pixies it was like fireworks going off in my head. Well guess what? Bowie loved them too and even covered their song ‘Cactus’ as well as performing with Frank Black on stage. Whilst we flirted with other musical forms such as drum and bass, guess who was doing the same? Bowie. And he didn’t do it like someone experiencing a midlife crisis. He did it with elegance, and the appreciation he displayed for emerging artists he dug was fired straight back at him. The feeling was mutual. He didn’t always receive critical adulation and I will be the first to be real and say I don’t love all of Bowie’s work. But what I do love is that he was always eager to absorb new influences and brave enough to try new ideas. What newer idea than the internet? Once again Bowie was right on the money.
When people first started going online, speeds were slow, and some were scathing of Bowie’s assertion that this was the future. Anyone reading this blog right now is arguable living proof of Bowie’s technological predictions. Perhaps because he was so ahead of the curve he could see the way social media was heading and that less, for him, would indeed prove more. Bowie was less visible in later years but no less relevant if my life experiences are anything to go by. Intuition tells me this was a man retreating so he could live to fight another day. Taking stock of the battlefield before going in for one final push. In a manner befitting the man, and encapsulating the incredible power of foresight he possessed, he stage managed his own physical demise and presented it as one final work of glorious art. Some I know found it too painful to watch. Too raw. But because I had already been following his work closely I was already immersed in it so had little choice but to continue. Who switches off the film they have been firmly engrossed in before the final credits roll? Being back in touch with Bowie’s work in the lead-up to his final album meant I gained a feeling of being on his immediate wavelength, or if that’s too much of an assertion, I at least felt part of a willing audience that had bought tickets for the show and was existing in real time. For anyone who felt squeamish, I understand the feeling but not the reasoning.
Bowie was a private man and someone extremely adept at managing perceptions. Be in no doubt, what you are seeing is precisely what he wanted you to see. Rejoice in it. Revel in it. We will never see anyone of his majesty again.