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David Bowie

David Bowie passed away last night, after an eighteen month battle with cancer.

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There are going to be hundreds upon hundreds of thoughtful and meticulously researched tributes to the musician, written by people who knew him and people who didn’t. There are people who have devoted their entire lives to study of his work, who have worked with him on a daily basis, who have stood by his side for years. It is impossible to accurately summarise the life of pop’s true chameleon, the perennial shapeshifter whose only truly consistent attribute was his ability to surprise and astound.

This is not such a piece. Those looking for an brief biography of the Brixton-born artist or a tour through his discography will likely find thoroughly-researched and carefully-crafted pieces elsewhere on the web. Those will only increase as the day goes on. There is so much to say about a career that spanned as much as Bowie’s. Bowie’s career is vast, not just in terms of time; but in terms of genre, medium and theme. Bowie was an artist who seemed to have an almost infinite number of faces, and each one deserves its own eulogy.

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Instead, this is a personal reflection of what Bowie meant to me personally. I hope you will forgive the indulgence, but Bowie was (and still is) my favourite musician of all time. My music collection is quite small, comprised primarily of movie and television soundtracks; nevertheless, there is an expansive Bowie section that collects work both popular and esoteric. Bowie has been a constant in my life longer than most of the people I know outside my own immediate family. He means a lot to me.

I can’t remember when I first encountered the music of David Bowie. Undoubtedly, I’d been exposed to some of his music from a young age. Bowie was a ubiquitous part of British popular music, which meant that he was also a ubiquitous part of Irish popular music. At the very least, Bowie might have served as context for what Bono was trying to do with “Mephisto” during the Zoo TV phase of U2’s nineties success. But I probably recognised a few of his more iconic songs; ChangesZiggy Stardust, Ashes to Ashes, “Heroes”, Let’s Dance.

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As a kid, I was never particularly fond of music. Music was primarily something playing in the car, or on the radio at grandparents’ house when they didn’t want to deal with the noise of visiting grandchildren. I knew it existed, I enjoyed some of it, I even sang along. However, I was more of a film and television person as a child. I had favourite films and actors for as long as I could remember, even before I had favourite artists or musicians. Truth be told, I’m still the same way. I don’t recognise half the songs in the annual United States of Pop.

I suspect that I first stumbled upon Bowie in my awkward adolescence. “Awkward adolescence” is one of those great phrases, as if to imply somehow there is a non-awkward variant out there for somebody to enjoy. As a child, my family moved around a lot. I spend four years of my childhood in Dublin, where my parents were from. Then we moved over to Ghana in West Africa, where my father got a job. Four years after that, my parents decided to move back home; there was no work in Dublin, so we moved to Sligo.

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Four years in Dublin, four years in Ghana, eight years in Sligo. After that, I went to college; I lived in Swords on the north side of Dublin, and I spent time with the family in their new home in Drogheda. Each time, I’d make connections and those connections would inevitably be torn away when fate or circumstance would pull me away. Four years is a reasonable amount of time. It allows for childhood friendships that are more than superficial, but which do not naturally survive the move across half the world (or even half the country).

I reckon I first really engaged with Bowie after we moved to Sligo, a town on the west coast of Ireland. It would have been in the late nineties, around the time of the twentieth anniversary of Low. (In terms of broader cultural markers, it was also around the time of the release of George Lucas’ remastered Star Wars.) I don’t know what exactly it was that drew me to Bowie. I suspect it was a recommendation or endorsement from somebody I trusted, or an article written in a magazine or even something on the nascent internet.

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Either way, I remember the first Bowie album that I bought. It was in the little Xtra-Vision store just outside the local cinema. I loved that video store; when I’d been forced to take summer work, I’d spammed my (pretty much blank) CV to every video store in town. Sadly, I ended up working at a golf course. Which is not at all bad as summer jobs go. On the day in question, I was picking up some bargain-basement films, likely ex-rental copies being sold for a pound or two a pop. I had some change, and I noticed one particular CD in the bargain basket.

My first David Bowie album was Lodger. It is perhaps not the most auspicious start to a long-term relationship. Although part of Bowie’s magnificent Berlin trilogy, Lodger is somewhat overshadowed by its direct predecessors. Lodger lacks the soulfulness of Low and the brazenness of “Heroes.” Personally, I’ve suspected that the lack of any instrumentals negatively affected its cultural cache, but it also lacks a single track with the power of Sound and Vision or “Heroes.” But the album stuck with me.

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A lot of this was probably down to my own inexperience. Poor sheltered teenager that I was, I’d never heard any of Scott Walker’s music; so African Night Flight hit me like a tonne of bricks. This certainly wasn’t like anything on any of my family’s tape recordings and compact discs. The rest of the album also stuck with me. I remember playing it over and over again on my portable CD player, trying to figure out where I’d heard Red Money before. I was too young to have ever heard Sister Midnight, but I seemed to recognise the rhythm on some primal level.

To this day, Lodger sticks with me. It is hard to say exactly why that is. Perhaps it is the sense of loneliness and disconnect that runs through it. It feels like travelling, but travelling without a home to return to. Lodger feels like the story of a lost young boy wandering out into a world that he doesn’t understand, but with no real frame of reference for what he sees. It captured a sense of isolation, even amid all those loud pop licks and distinctive soundscapes. Lodger understood what it was like to be alone, even when surrounded by other people.

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Needless to say, I was hooked. Bowie intrigued me, as a performer and a musician. I read everything I could get my hands on; I particularly recommend Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, which goes song-by-song through his oeuvre. Being the late nineties, I was able to experience multiple Bowie’s simultaneously. I could get a copy of Diamond Dogs the same weekend as listening to Earthling. I could segue from Low into 1.outside. It was truly remarkable to me that one person could be responsible for all of this.

I was an odd teenager. I mean, everybody’s an odd teenager in their own way. There is no “one size fits all” solution to the problems that come with growing up. I wasn’t a goth or a punk; I didn’t dress in black or join a band. I was quite astute academically, but otherwise I mostly faded into the background. Evasion is always the most effective way to deal with teenage bullies after all. Blend in, don’t stand out; conform. However, there was always (and, truth be told, still is) an awkwardness to me. And Bowie spoke to that.

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As I delved into Bowie, I was astounded that one man could be so many things. Musician, actor, artist. He even wrote musicals, although none of them actually materialised. I still long to see a musical version of 1984 realised from the b-side of Diamond Dogs. It was astounding to me that the space-age glam rocker of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars could be the trippy hippie of Hunky Dory or the smooth pitch man of Let Dance. Let alone the grunge artist of 1.outside or the drums’n’bass musician of Earthling.

I didn’t understand a lot of it. Being honest, I still don’t. However, if one man could be Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke or even the weird pirate from that Rebel, Rebel recording, then maybe I could be whatever I wanted to be or whatever I needed to be. Not necessarily in some sort of hazily self-actualisation sort of way, but in being willing to put myself out there and to face the world on my own terms. If Bowie could build up a new persona three or four times in a decade, maybe I could do something similar to get through secondary school.

Bowie-Heathen

And it was. In the years since secondary school, I’ve been many things in my life. I’ve been the popular kid, the centre of attention, the gracious host, the silent partner, the supportive boyfriend, the introverted loner, the cynic, the romantic, the enabler, the disappointment, the critic, the office worker, the organiser, the writer. And more besides. And, through it all, I’ve been me. There has been a single unifying unsevered thread running through it all; I’ve never pretended, even when those aspects were seemingly contradictory. We contain multitudes.

It is a lesson that everybody learns at one time or another, part of growing up. People change and evolve over time, sometimes becoming radically different (consider the shift from Scary Monsters to Let’s Dance) and sometimes subtly shifting (like from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane). It seems like a trite life lesson to take away from an artist of Bowie’s caliber, but it was an important one to a confused teenager. Bowie could be Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Leon; but there was always Bowie there. Impossible to quantify, but ever-present.

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David Bowie was very much my “gateway” drug. He was a window to a wide variety of other art and artists who I’ve come to treasure, inspiring me to try things that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The Man Who Fell to Earth was my first Nicholas Roeg film; even though I was too young to understand it at the time, I remember feeling profoundly sad for the longest time afterwards. Low and “Heroes” pointed me towards Brian Eno’s solo work. His recordings introduced me to Bertolt Brecht and Philip Glass. I am nowhere near as cultured as I should be, but Bowie helped.

It is very hard to put a single unifying theme on Bowie’s phenomenal output. It is a cliché to describe Bowie as a musical chameleon, but it is apt. It is hard to credit a single artist with Young Americans, Scary Monsters, Let’s Dance and Black Tie, White Noise. Any time you try to piece together a picture of Bowie, he would change; was that linking thread you thought you say simply an optical illusion that was lost when he changed position? (Or perhaps when you did?) How much of Bowie was a warped reflection, playing off the listener’s expectations and preconceptions?

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What really stuck with me about Bowie’s music was the profound melancholy of it. Even the iconic guitar riff of Ziggy Stardust plays as eulogy, the song speaking of its subject in the past tense. The sheer joy of Moonage Daydream was just an apocalyptic haze, a decision to burn out rather than fade away. Bowie’s poppiest songs were frequently laced with bitter irony; Young Americans mourns lost and wasted youth, while Let’s Dance feigns joy in the face of the end of all things. Even Jump They Say and Everyone Says Hi touch on family tragedy and loss.

Bowie’s lyrical style has been frequently mocked, due to a misunderstanding of his famous “cut-up” approach to songwriting. However, Bowie’s lyrics often manage a profundity beyond their literal meaning, conveying a sense of loss and tragedy through an economy of language. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” croons Bowie at one point in Station to Station, “so I’m thinking that it must be love.” Perhaps the vagueness helps, providing a blank slate on to which a listener might project their own uncertainties and insecurities.

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There was a soulful economy to Bowie’s lyrics. “I… I wish I could swim,” Bowie famously sang on “Heroes”, the lyrics that opened the single version of the title track. “Like the dolphins. Like dolphins can swim.” It is a simple image, but one that evokes a deep-seated sense of melancholy and longing. While the rest of the song sketches out scenarios in which that longing might be felt, that single line distills the song’s core essence. Those thirteen words (and only nine distinct words) convey so much, particularly when filtered through Bowie’s staccato rhythm.

In a way, Blackstar suggests one last grand mysterious gesture from the musician. The artist was aware of his terminal cancer, with producer Tony Visconti describing the album as a “parting gift” to fans. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie offers as the opening lines of Lazarus, before the internet knew he was dead. His last single, the video to Lazarus is retroactively layered with hidden meaning. Even bolder, Girl Loves Me finds Bowie demanding, “Where the %&$? did Monday go?” It is a line that seems almost wry in retrospect. We empathise.

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Who cannot empathise with the personal crisis at the heart of Ashes to Ashes? “I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things. I’ve never done anything out of the blue.” Perhaps Bowie appeals particularly to creative types, touching time and time again upon themes of reinvention and reinvigoration. Sound and Vision remains a touching ode to creative block. “Blue, blue, ‘lectric blue, that’s the colour of my room, where I will live,” Bowie laments. It is hard to believe that a performer as versatile as Bowie might have “nothing to read, nothing to say.”

Bowie was prolific, leaving behind a treasure trove of material. His body of work spans decades and genre, populated with hidden gems that are frequently overlooked or underexplored. I’ve always had a soft spot for Buddha of Suburbia, although his live recordings on the last disk of the Bowie at the Beeb collection are beautiful; they create the impression of an artist who was never quite done with his work, and who could still find something new and beautiful in something as ubiquitous as Let’s Dance twenty years later.

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I was lucky enough to see Bowie perform at the Point as part of his Reality tour. I’ll admit that I am not a huge fan of the boundless energy of Reality, much preferring the quieter contemplation of Heathen. However, Bowie performed a three-hour set of many of his greatest hits. It was amazing to see a performer with that much vitality and that much energy. When he sang Never Get Old, you believed it was a promise. The Next Day and Blackstar demonstrated that Bowie was still an artist who was young at heart.

He will be missed.

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11 Responses

  1. I read it here first. 😦

    I first saw him in Labyrinth, but I have to say that movie wasn’t exactly my jam and he made a lukewarm impression! Heathen was my first Bowie album. Of course, it came out when I was still in middle school and there *was* a substantial amount of press behind it. (He did the rounds on Conan and other shows, that sort of thing.) Plus it had some groovy album art. Apparently he modeled it on those classic b&w thriller movies. Classy, no?

    So the square looking Bowie in the skinny tie has been “my” Bowie. I believe timelessness was what he sought; he wasn’t interested in fads for the most part (the Let’s Dance cash-in notwithstanding) and always had one foot in the past, finding ways to stay relevant without sacrificing his voice.

    • Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!

      I adore Heathen. I’m surprised that it’s not more highly regarded in Bowie fandom. It’d be in my top ten Bowie albums, I think; I suspect it’d be ahead of any nineties albums too. Depending on how you cut the eighties (1980/1981), it might even be ahead of any of Bowie’s eighties albums to boot!

      • I’ll never forget one interview. Conan brought up fatherhood (he’d just had Alexandria) and how horrifying it must be to sing lullabies in that voice of his. They sing a few bars of hickory-dickory. He’s ready to let it rest, but Bowie says, “no no, I’m going all the way with this” and finishes the song, Bill Shatner style, with a hilarious scowl… I think it’s on youtube. Ahh, here it is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40c0wjFeFPY

      • Conan actually packaged a bunch of clips of Bowie in his show last night. It’s a wonderful time capsule; it’s strange how young Earthling era bleached-hair-and-black-goatee Bowie looks in hindsight. Hold on, here’s the clip:
        http://teamcoco.com/video/conan-remembers-david-bowie

        Although I’m disappointed the clip omits his celebrity secrets bit.
        “You would think that a rock star being married to a super-model would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is.” I miss that guy.

  2. I read it here first as well. A very sad day for music, Bowie was an icon and a legend. I think your article of personal meaning is much better than a compendium of his greatest works. Thanks for sharing even if it is along with bad news.

    • Sorry to give the bad news, and thanks for the kind words. I figure there are those with a lot more to say and a lot more insight to offer. Still, Bowie meant a lot to me, which is odd to say, given he exists more as a concept than a person to me.

  3. Darren, first I want to thank you for writing this tribute to David Bowie and for maintaining this great site alive. I read that he passed away in a headline somewhere and didn’t believed at first, I didn’t knew he was battling cancer for so long, so I made sure by checking other sources and then my day just turned sad.

    I came to appreciate Bowie when he released Earthling in 1997, that album became one of my all time favorites, then I got immersed in his early 70s material. Bowie was a great innovator, always trying not to repeat himself, endlessly experimenting, not only his discography it’s highly interesting but also a great portion of his videography it’s very valuable.

    This took me totally by surprise, I mean how many artists of his caliber release an album and die 2 days later??, everything happening so fast hasn’t been easy for me to assimilate.

    • Thanks for the kind words. It was a massive surprise to me as well. I remember there being rumours about Bowie’s health following Reality. I think the suspicion is that he had a heart attack at the end of the tour, which explains why he’s done so few live performances since then, despite his avowed fondness for touring as an excuse to re-engineer and re-work his classic hits. (“Let’s Dance” is a great example of a late-stage revamp from Bowie, touring. He turns it into something a bit slower and more mournful.)

  4. Excellent write-up, loved your insight on Bowie. He was certainly a very interesting and varied favorite artist for you and his impact was surely one that resonated through many fans. I work at a classic rock radio station in Texas and we were playing a wide range of Bowie songs all day as a tribute and despite the circumstances it made for a very fun day at work. I learned of a lot of his not-top-hits songs from various albums to remember and save for later. Definitely going to expand my vinyl library and try to find the albums you listed here.

  5. I’ve never been a Bowie fan, and in the wake of his death I’ve been feeling kind of left out. Outside of Fame and Let’s Dance his stuff doesn’t appeal to me.

    • Cool. I mean, art is subjective. Some stuff works for some folks and doesn’t work for others. My personal favourite Bowie album (Diamond Dogs) tends to get lost in the shuffle of his more well-loved seventies output. Then again, I’ve heard it repeatedly rumoured that it was Bowie’s favourite of his own work; so I’m in good company.

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