Almost a year to the day, and like a great deal of the rest of the planet, I’ve been revisiting my thoughts about David Bowie. Sometimes reality does one of those things that makes your world wobble. The matrix throws up something which just doesn’t seem to compute. Try as you might, you can’t absorb it into that frame of things you can legitimately live with.
9/11 is obviously one such example, that very jarring sense of the world being a very different place at five past two than it was at two o clock. Few things are more unsettling. Forget what the positivity gurus tell you: we don’t actually like change at all. Our strength as a species is that we can (sometimes) adapt to change, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
I suspect that one reason so many people, even now, find the passing of Bowie so difficult to accept is the way versions of him have replicated themselves across the culture so profusely, like that agent in The Matrix who gets cloned ad infinitum.
There was hardly a single musical act of note in the 1980’s which didn’t owe a debt to Bowie. Only last night, I was struck by how much the layered dissonance of albums like Heroes must have influenced punk rock. Even while early punk rockers derided Bowie, they were happy to churn out simplified versions of his sound.
The influence continues to this day. Bowie’s take on the enigmatic outsider who may or may not be gay or asexual finds repeating echoes all over the culture: would Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes have been plausible without Bowie? Possible, but not likely.
In a very curious way, outside of the musical legacy – which is considerable – David Bowie may even have altered human nature, or our perception of it at least, to an extent that might not be fully understood for decades.
Would the concept of marriage equality have achieved mainstream cultural acceptability without those early stretchings of the boundaries by people like Bowie? Yes, it’s likely these things would have happened eventually, but there’s no question that Bowie’s ‘expansion of the possible’ became an insistent whisper that culture found increasingly difficult to ignore.
But there’s a more fundamental way, I think, in which Bowie will continue to shape our sense of who we are. He invented and discarded new personas for himself with dizzying abandon. At different points, he was a singer/songwriter of bewilderingly dense folk ballads, a mainstream crooner in the Anthony Newley style, a novelty act, a possibly transsexual glam star, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke (something that still seems very edgy today), an alien, a cultural refugee in Berlin, the emaciated prophet of Blackstar, and those are only the ones I can remember.
Some of these personas were made and discarded in the frantic struggle to crack the big time, others were an at times frightened response to that eventual success, but all of them came from one person, and maybe that’s the real message of David Bowie’s life and career: one person can be many things, many identities, we are not monolithic, today’s camp butterfly can be tomorrow’s pub bore, we are a spectrum, though even that phrase doesn’t do us justice.
Those who followed him and his career will always, I think, have reason to be grateful to David Bowie. He increased the range of things that seemed to be possible, and that is an immense thing to say about any artist.
Now, being human and terribly sentimental, some of us since last year have felt the need to elevate Bowie to the status of some form of secular saint. I expect to hear any day now that people have been cured by touching his album covers. The contribution he made was part of his own ruthlessly pursued artistic journey. He didn’t martyr himself to drugs in the 1970’s just so we could all feel a little cooler about ourselves; it was part of his own trajectory, simple as that.
It seems very important to many to believe that he was a wonderful man, as well as an important artist. Maybe he was, but the only people who really know are those who were closest to him.
As always with Bowie, people have felt the need to project what they will, what they think of as their own truth. Not long after his death, I came across a lengthy article which argued that he’d been a secret devotee of Aleister Crowley and the occult all his life, and that the Blackstar album, far from being a passing gift to fans, is actually a deeply intricate occult thesis. The most striking aspect, perhaps, was not what the article was saying so much as the sheer effort the writer had expended trying to say it.
The bigger the truth, the greater the paradox. The sheer workload of stuff Bowie got through between about 1968 and 1980 is absolutely frightening, particularly if he was doing all the drugs they claimed at the time. Had he made some kind of Faustian pact with the future which rendered the sad decline after 2003 inevitable?
Most of his financial worries were solved by the deal with EMI and the ‘Let’s Dance’ album of 1983, but the unprecedented commercial success he achieved appears to have become kind of trap. The deal meant he had to churn out other albums, such as ‘Tonight’ and ‘Never Let Me Down,’ and while the latter isn’t as risible as people say, there is a big sense – when you compare it to what came before and after – that his heart wasn’t in it.
I think it’s too trite to say he produced less good music in the 90’s and zeroes because he was happy. But it’s hard to figure Tin Machine as anything other than a kind of whimsical mid life crisis. Maybe he just wanted to be in a band, any band. Maybe it was something to do with Kabbalah.
It’s been revealed recently that Bowie didn’t receive the news that his cancer was terminal until just a couple of months before Blackstar was released, and that this supposedly refutes the theory that the album was conceived as a farewell.
Maybe, but everyone who has known cancer or cancer sufferers knows that it’s possible to be at least two things at once. In the words of yet another band influenced by Bowie, you “hope for the best but expect the worst.” You plan consciously for a future that has already sneered that it might let you down by failing to turn up.
Death and regret suffuse both Blackstar and the strange album which preceded it, ‘The Next Day.’ Indeed, the song ‘Where Are We Now’ from ‘The Next Day’ contains a shattering sense of the failure of powers, of someone who is almost a ghost flitting through the landmarks of Berlin, the one place in the world he felt weirdly free.
It’s like the singer of ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ is back inside the same fantastical temporal loop: the loop continues but there is every sense that our trapped hero will not.
In that sense, Blackstar becomes a kind of heroic last summoning of powers. There’s a heartbreaking segment in the recently released BBC documentary about Bowie, where the mike picked him up essentially hyperventilating, trying to push enough oxygen through his blood to belt out those last powerful notes.
Heartbreaking too is the song ‘I Can’t Give Everything’ from Blackstar. There is an almost Buddhist sense of acceptance, of gently slipping back, but there’s a restless note as well, if not exactly rage, then certainly a regret at the slow death of light. How much more of myself will I have to give away before … before whatever?
I’ll close with words I’d intended posting here a year ago, and go back to fantasising that the Starman is on a spaceship hiding behind the Moon, waiting with all the other notables for one of us to understand.
I didn’t meet the man and now I never will. But the fame of others in this weird age of ours is such that, like many people today, I feel an absence: some touchstone, some prism through which I consciously and unconsciously viewed myself and the world, has abruptly departed.
Like the very best of us, it didn’t hang around for ever more demeaning laps of honour. It mailed a last gift then quickly took its leave. Our most fabulous alien has left the planet. I imagine this must be what it would feel like if Superman was to die.
I must have had five conversations with different people about Bowie in the last week alone, and until Monday, it wasn’t an unusual week.
Only last Monday, I agreed with someone that his best albums – radically different to each other – were probably ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and ‘Low.’ Only the other week, a meme was doing the rounds on Facebook, inviting us all to feel small and inadequate by comparison with the insane number of things Bowie had achieved by the age of 30 or 40 (Facebook is extraordinarily good at making us feel small and inadequate. I sometimes wonder if that’s its true purpose.).
Just a couple of nights ago, I heard the first single, ‘Lazarus,’ from the now posthumous album ‘Blackstar,’ a parting gift to the world from the strangest and most generous of men. I was shocked by how frail and fearful it sounded, as if the King of Detached Cool had somehow morphed into Noirin Ni Riain, pushing his voice and arms out in supplication against the dark.
It seems as if this was final character, the final guise in which he strove to tell us about himself, about us. Every character is essentially summed up by its own paradoxes, but Bowie’s life was so less ordinary that the paradoxes are suitably gigantic.
He was an entertainer who was often dark. He was an exhibitionist who was fanatically private to the end. He was a fighter who at heart was probably a far gentler soul than many of his fans or detractors suspected. He was ambitious and retiring, a rock star with the heart of a performance artist.
He had the incredible tenacity – an almost staggering obstinacy – that I have only (and most paradoxically) encountered among the gentlest souls I have met. He was a communicator who remained unknowable, exotic and strangely closed, like an Oriental doll or a Mishima short story. Only by spanning all these contradictions, it seems, can you truly be called an original.
His parting gift to the world was released just days before his death, and it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t planned: Bowie confounding expectations yet again. And just like his life, the manner of his passing spans and confounds all the genres. There is, for example, some macabre low comedy in the fact that his nut job ex-wife is currently appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. One wonders if Bowie himself would have appreciated the joke. He was always more of a comedian than most people realized.
I’ll certainly buy the new album, but it may be many weeks before I can bring myself to listen to it.
Farewell spaceboy. Rest in peace between the stars xxx