On Friday the 8th I downloaded the new David Bowie album and listened to it at work. On Monday the 11th, I got up at 6ish, uncharacteristically checked twitter before breakfast, and discovered he was dead.
It’s a testament to how profoundly irrational human emotion can be that the death of an oldish multimillionaire I never met could wallop me with such a sense of quiet desolation – not boo-hoo sadness, but shock, a sort of stunned, un-showy, rabbit-in-the-headlights inability to compute the information.
“Are you alright? You look devastated?” half-joked the usually anything but serious woman who sits opposite me at work, finding me staring blankly into space. What was I supposed to say? “A 69-year old pop star died”?
Why did I, a crazed hippy eco-communist with little or no patience with the flouncier sides of art and high culture, feel so strangely attached to a warbling tax dodger who got abominably rich off the back of ordinary people paying him to distract them?
One simple answer is that music is the second most important thing in my life after politics, and my favourite thing in the world (be immediately suspicious of anyone who does politics because they enjoy it, rather than doing what they do because they think it’s right). And David Bowie was one of my absolute all-time favourite makers of music.
But that would only really scratch the surface. The truth is a lot more complex. I don’t think I would be a crazed hippy eco-communist without the influence of David Bowie.
At first, that’ll sound like a baffling statement – and quite possibly won’t make much more sense once I’ve tried to explain it. Bowie was largely apolitical – his only major political statements came in the mid-70s, when, subsisting entirely on a diet of red peppers, milk, and cocaine, he made a series of garbled statements endorsing fascism. About the same time, he also believed that Jimmy Page had put a curse on him and witches were trying to steal his semen.
By the time he’d cleaned up, he was just your standard rich, detached artsy cosmopolitan liberal. His mid-life crisis heavy metal experiment Tin Machine covered Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm, updated with right-on Thatcher-bashing lyrics during live performances when he thought it’d get a favourable response – and Alistair Campbell’s diaries revealed he would’ve considered endorsing New Labour if he wasn’t afraid of bringing attention to his status as a tax exile.
More fundamentally, he was, for a while at least, an enthusiastic encourager of something I hate about modern society – the obsessive, dangerous exultance of the individual. He might’ve looked down on it with airy disdain in later life, but he was a central originator of the cult of celebrity, a self-styled art rock messiah that millions almost literally worshipped.
But Bowie landed in my life just when I was going through the first pricklings of what would become an intense period of politicisation – I’m reluctant to use the word in an era where it’s come to mean something very different, but you could say radicalisation.
I’d become exasperated by the smothering banalities of modern life – a pop culture full of clichés, a high culture full of aloofness and elitism, a domestic culture dominated by a schmaltzy, respectable, white-picket-fence conservatism back with a vengeance and nauseating happily-ever-after delusions.
I didn’t really like music. Obviously, there were a smattering of songs I liked, I owned half a dozen CDs, but in the main the stuff I heard on the radio or the TV was dry, dull, desperately unoriginal, fixated on the same emotional note – dewy-eyed romantic sentimentality. To which Bowie offered an exhilarating alternative.
In the post-Christmas lull of December 2006, I was in the bath listening to the radio when a documentary marking Bowie’s imminent 60th birthday came on. I was more interested than I once would’ve been – for a long time, to me, Bowie had just been a few pop numbers that didn’t enthuse me very much. “Changes”, “Rebel Rebel” etc. But then the BBC put out time travel cop-drama cop drama Life on Mars, christened after and extensively featuring his much more interesting 1973 single of the same name. And, hearing the procession of talking heads rave so evangelically about the man on the radio, I decided he was worth looking into.
Over the next year, I must’ve acquired the majority of the 20-odd albums he’d then released – starting, predictably enough, with Ziggy Stardust, but moving forward and backward through his discography with a ravenous appetite. I instantly loved the melange of styles and sounds and lyrical references. With Bowie you got rock, R’n’B, jazz, soul, funk, folk, the outer reaches of experimental electronica. Listening to him was a cultural education, as so many others are noting in the wake of his death. How do I know who William Burroughs was? How do I know who Philip Glass is? Kraftwerk, Gene Genet, Anthony Burgess? Kabuki theatre and Quaaludes, and so much else that I could mention? David Bowie.
Much more than that, though, Bowie taught me about thinking critically – about doing what you think is right or interesting regardless of what respectable society has to say about it. The most important thing I learnt from him was that most social convention was just that – convention. Arbitrary. Man-made. Rules and practices we’re taught are natural and inevitable, raised to not even question, but that actually have no real validity or higher reasoning behind them at all.
Bowie tore through conventions surrounding sexuality, gender, and the entirely imaginary division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. That inspired me, but before long I was taking that challenge-everything perspective and applying to something that he wasn’t really very interested in – politics. I didn’t just question the idea that heterosexual monogamy was some kind of universal default setting, like Bowie did – I started questioning capitalism, consumerism, inequality, wealth and poverty as well. And that, in short, is how an apolitical pop singer played a vital role in turning me into a raving socialist, and the person I am today.
The albums Bowie released throughout the ‘70s were phenomenal. Obviously Ziggy Stardust, but also The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Diamond Dogs – which I never properly listened to back in the day, and have been appreciating on repeat this weekend while cleaning the kitchen. I also quite like “Heroes”, largely for “Blackout” and “Joe the Lion”, but not as much as most Bowie aficionados do.
But my favourites have always been Station to Station, which blurred blue-eyed soul and the influence of German bands like Kraftwerk and Neu to produce melodramatic, vaudevillian funk-rock; Scary Monsters, a glorious halfway house between the edgy experimentalism of his Berlin period and the poppier-rockier sensibility of his Ziggy phase, adorned with some of the most hair-raising guitar-work ever recorded courtesy of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp; and Low, which might well be my favourite album of all time.
Low never ceases to bowl me over with its boldness and brilliance. Half composed of brooding, almost choral-sounding synth-heavy instrumentals, half with wiry, manic songs (the ebullient pop perfection of Sound and Vision standing out as the obvious exception), it was the result of the creative collision between Bowie and professional weirdo Brian Eno. I spent literally hours of my life sat in the back garden, bedroom window open, with Low drifting out of it on repeat. At the time, it perfectly mirrored my own sense of profound alienation from what passed for mainstream.
This, of course, was the Bowie of 1970s. Bowie the restless, freewheeling creative, uncompromising in the pursuit of his artistic vision. For me, he stopped being that after Scary Monsters came out in 1980 – and became just another banal stadium rock entertainer, albeit one with a scintillating back catalogue. I think his ‘80s output was generally awful. There are a few Bowie albums I haven’t got round to buying yet, but only two that I’ve consciously avoided – Tonight and Never Let Me Down. Even Bowie said they were shit. The ‘90s was a bit better, the 2000s a bit better again – but nothing that I go back and listen to very often.
Looking back, it’s remarkable for me to think that almost my entire experience of Bowie has been during his exile period – I first started properly listening to him in early 2007, nearly three years on from the heart attack that ended his touring career and saw him disappear almost completely from public life. By the time he unexpectedly re-emerged in 2013, I’d moved on – I was all about Frank Zappa and Billy Jenkins. I was obviously excited that he’d come back, and avidly listened to The Next Day when it was finally released – but, comeback single “Where Are We Now” aside, I can’t remember any of it now.
It’s funny – at no stage during his prolonged absence did I consider the possibility Bowie was ill. A few years ago I went to London, and stopped in on old school acquaintance who’d set up shop in the city, feverishly working away on the lowest rung of the music industry ladder – I wrote about it in an entirely unrelated post.
She told me, in her tiny Tower Hamlets living room with an Aladdin Sane picture on the wall, that she’d heard Bowie was terminally ill. I completely rubbished it – there were rumours to that effect coming out all the time. It might well have been one of those rumours she was referring to, I don’t know – the organisation around Bowie was remarkably loyal and tight-lipped, so I’d be surprised if anything slipped out before he wanted it to. But regardless, it was a moment I was instantly taken back to when twitter clobbered me round the face with the entirely unexpected news that Bowie was dead.
I’d say I’d been enjoying Blackstar, his final album, about as much as anything of his I’d listened to in his post-Scary Monsters career. There was a turn back towards the experimentalism of his past, as he ditched the stale band of safe, frankly very boring collaborators he’d been working with since the late ‘90s and got a noted jazz band from New York in instead. Despite repeated listenings on the Friday, and over the weekend of his death, I spectacularly failed to pick up on what are now being read as lyrical references to his imminent demise.
I’ve usually got no time for music videos, but hearing the fuss about “Lazarus” in the hours after his death was announced, I sat and watched it before dazedly shuffling off to work – and given everything we know now about his terminal cancer, it’s pretty fucking mind-blowing.
I should’ve long since learnt not to ascribe meaning to Bowie lyrics unless that meaning comes from the mouth of the man himself. Out of the sudden avalanche of tributes and retrospective, I found a video interview with him from the late ‘90s, in which explains how, like the French painter Duchamp, he believed a work of art wasn’t finished until the audience comes up with their own interpretation of it. But “Lazarus” is blatantly about death, his death, and I sort of want to believe that releasing it when he did was a planned and expertly executed artistic statement – turning his demise into a work of art, like his friend and collaborator Tony Visconti says, which is just the most Bowie thing in the world.
I had an emotional attachment to the man – he was probably my biggest influence during one of the most impressionable, formative periods of my life. And when something or someone human beings are attached to gets taken away from them, they’re sad. I won’t try and justify it politically or philosophically – emotions aren’t rational.
But he’s dead now, and I believe that you should really mourn for the living – the people left behind. In his case, his wife, his children, 44 and 15 respectively, his friends, everyone else who felt some kind of attachment to him.
And in a last-ditch attempt to bring this strange quasi-obituary round to something that fits with my ramshackle life philosophy to close – I think that when big famous people like David Bowie die, we need to remind ourselves that they’re no better or worse than any other human being on the face of the planet. I think we need to take that intense upset and remember that whenever someone dies, somebody feels that – and that every few seconds, every single day, people die, not in their late sixties, as comfortably and peacefully as it’s possible for late-stage cancer sufferers to go, but of starvation, of preventable disease, of injustice and war, and things that we all have a moral responsibility to try and end.