I didn’t even know David Bowie could die.
His artistic status was secured by 1980 but his recent return, after a ten year absence, saw him producing some of the best music of an astounding career, and reinventing the mythology of the man in a way he hadn’t since Ziggy Stardust in 1972. No wonder news of his death, after an 18 month battle with cancer, wrought shock, tributes and tears worldwide from fans of his first classic Space Oddity of 1969, and those just coming on board with his last, Blackstar.
When he released Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972, the album the which broke his fame, he’d already put out 1971’s Hunky Dory, despite them being recorded around the same time, so the new fans he anticipated would have a ready-made mythos to dive into a rediscover. As has emerged in the twenty four hours since his passing, it seems he remained as relentlessly keen to surprise, shock and mythologise to the last: coordinating his final stage show, album and music videos in ways which turned his very death into a piece of performance art, and secured his legacy forever. It has been, as with every one of his reinventions, a parlour trick. But what does that matter when the spell has been cast so poignantly across a globe over music lovers across five generations. It made his passing on Monday so shocking, and something akin to wondrous.
“Music simply wouldn’t be the same without him”
There’s a reason that in the past few day the most eminent outpourings of sadness and love for Bowie have been from the musicians. Madonna, Brian Eno, Mick Jagger, Nile Rodgers, Iggy Pop, The Who, Queen, Kendrick Lamar, Paul McCartney, Kanye West… it’s easier to name the major names in the history of pop music who didn’t wish to pay tribute than to name those that did. That’s because music simply wouldn’t be the same without him. He pioneered metal, hard rock, glam rock, ambient music, the new wave; he managed to somehow become the defining artist of the turn of the decade in 1970, cold war-era Berlin and the turn of the decade in 1980. He produced many of the best songs of all time: ‘Life On Mars’, ‘”Heroes”’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Changes’, ‘Golden Years’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Modern Love’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Starman’ – and with the likes of ‘Where Are We Now?’, ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ was still creating music of that quality up until his death. He made some of the best albums of all time too, and even in his less fruitful periods was constantly reinventing into Drum and Bass, Disco and House. As a vocalist he gave some of the most iconic ever performances and as a performer was unparalleled.
His musical influence didn’t stop there either. In a recent tribute to him after his passing, lifetime friend Brian Eno said Bowie was the best producer he’d ever worked with, and indeed for the Iggy Pop he produced the proto-punk masterpiece Raw Power, working as ever with music quite unlike his own; later pulled the same magic on Iggy’s The Idiot. He also produced much of Lou Reed’s Transformer, another of the decade’s best LPs. When Richard Branson paid tribute to Bowie, it was in regards to his foresight in the digital age of music: in 1999 his 21st LP Hours was the first release from major label available to download in full on the Internet. Of course he also took a keen interest in performance: his fascination with mime as a teen leading to his essential lead role in 1976’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. He gained acclaim for his Broadway turn as The Elephant Man and won a generation of new fans the wrong way in Labyrinth. One of his last acts was the authorship and production of the off-Broadway musical Lazarus.
The role in which he was most influential though, dare I say beyond even in his music, was as a fashion pioneer. David Bowie completely changed British culture at the start of the seventies, be it through his non-conformity with gender (‘you must understand that it’s not a woman’s. It’s a man’s dress’) and open bisexuality, wrapping his arm round the neck of guitarist Mick Ronson live on Top of the Pops in 1972. More than that though: next time you walk down a street, look at the way people are dressed: strangely and boldly and exactly how they want to, but you don’t even bat an eyelid. None of that would be the case if it weren’t for Bowie, creating Ziggy Stardust and putting his neck on the line first. He was the idol of weirdos, and bullied kids, and it was suddenly cool to be different, still is, and likely forever will be. In 2013 Bowie was named the Best Dressed Briton in History by a BBC Poll and a VMA tour shone a light on his legacy. Of all the British icons we’ve lost: Diana, Churchill, Thatcher… Bowie was the rare face of the outlier, the creative: he was the face of British Cool.
Bowie’s drug addiction, sometimes deeply troubled mental state and disowned dabblings with fascism and the occult are not to be brushed over or glamorized, but if in the 90’s and early 2000’s his music seemed occasionally a little toothless, that might just be because he at last seemed rather happy. Seen in rare interviews and on stage smiling and charitable (in both social enterprise and musical collaborations with the likes of James Murphy, Dave Gilmour, Arcade Fire and Nine Inch Nails), Bowie performed one of his last transformations into a family man: finally taking his daughter to school as he regretted never having done with his first son. He died 25 years into his second marriage.
Bowie once said ‘I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.’ To his fans, to his successors and collaborators, to people who couldn’t care less about music and even for people who never liked his: David Jones was an inspiration, and a role model. Never rest on your laurels. Never take a day for granted. Be as open as you can be. Be as good as you can be.
David Bowie was excellent. Thank you for the music. Rest in peace.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Image: Louise McLaren via Flickr