How do we mourn today? How do we mark the passing of a great, illuminating soul? We change our facebook profile picture. We post a one-sentence tweet. Then we go back to our glowing screens. There is so much war and disaster and novelty and death these days there’s no time for anything more. And besides, we all know another one will be coming along any moment now.
As I get older I’m beginning to glimpse what it’s like to be old, with a funeral every week of someone you once laughed with and loved. But it’s not the people I slept with yet, it’s the heroes I grew up with, the figures of beauty and genius I looked to as beacons of wonder and a higher plain of existence, signposts to a richer, deeper world beyond the narrow mundanity of family life and small town stagnation.
I grew up before the internet, when there was no portal to the group mind of the western world a finger motion away. To be an outsider finding another human being sharing ANY of the same passions and ideas as yourself was the rarest and most treasurable thing in the world, and you could go your whole life without meeting one. Books were your safest bet, if you were lucky enough to find one which told the truth. So for someone to break through the carefully maintained inanity of the TV and the Radio and use those mediums to bridge the gap between millions with something challenging, alien, pure, heartfelt, dangerous and dissident was an extraordinary and seemingly impossible act. I sometimes wonder if it’s actually possible for people younger than me to appreciate just how hard it was to make that happen, and what it therefore meant to those who were touched by it.
In the age of reality TV and YouTube sensations, ‘fame’ doesn’t really mean any of what it once did. We really should have another word for karaoke contestants and celebrity chefs leaking their own sex tapes to eke out one more week of recognition. You’re not truly famous in my book unless people know your name a hundred years later. You’re certainly not Great.
David Bowie was famous because David Bowie was truly great: like The Beatles and The Stones before him, Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, his songs are just as loved and played and celebrated today as they ever were, almost 50 years on, and changed pretty much everything that followed, both in music and popular culture. I won’t even try to name all the lesser cul-de-sac acts that sprang up in his wake, all the New Romantics and Goths, the Art-Rockers and Gender Benders: none of them achieved anything comparable to their idol either in breadth or popularity, and none of them would have - or could have - existed without him.
What was his gift? What made him special? What did he do first, before anyone else?
Bowie was the first magpie of rock n roll, the first to take on whole styles of music as nothing more than colours for him to paint his own unique creations with, and he did that all the way through his life, touring whatever excited him in the moment from folk and rock and plastic soul all the way through krautrock and ambient and jazz and drum&bass, but turning all of them into simply ‘Bowie’. The songs Space Oddity, Ashes To Ashes and Hallo Spaceboy are all thematically linked, all directly referring to the same character, though each is more than a decade away from the one next to it, and in a different genre of music. And every one of them a hit.
David Bowie was the first rocker to explicitly make his life’s work the wearing of a series of masks and personas - starting with Ziggy Stardust, he forced the audience to step back from the ecstasy of the moment and see an artificial creation - an ‘Actor’ before them playing a part the man behind the mask was writing. In doing so he deepened and expanded the vocabulary and possibilities of popular music, adding a knowing detachment and artificiality that would have been unimaginable in rock n roll before he came along. At a time when Showaddywaddy, The Carpenters and The Bay City Rollers were his competition in the charts, he was introducing high-art ideas from experimental theatre and other mediums into rock music, such as utilizing William S Burroughs’ “cut-up” method of writing novels for writing lyrics.
If that wasn’t enough, he was also the first openly gay pop star (even though he wasn’t really, perhaps just a little bi from time to time, though no-one knew that then). In his unprecedented androgyny, and still shocking antics onstage like simulating oral sex every night with his guitarist Mick Ronson back in the Ziggy days, he kicked open the door for all the Boy George’s, Antony Hegarty’s and Marilyn Manson’s to saunter through years later, though of course it goes without saying none of them have created anything like the enormously varied yet immediately recognizable body of work he put together, and never will.
I don’t see my family all that often but my mother often rings me up to tell me of the death of some person from the past she swears I once knew, some distant aunt or uncle, some old family friend whose house I once stayed at, long, long ago. And I have to tell her over and over again I don’t remember who they are, I don’t know who she’s talking about. They mean nothing to me.
If I was writing all this for a man I’d never met just because he was someone I once saw on Top Of The Pops and on the cover of some magazines, someone who made a few nice songs I hummed along with, that would be a sad thing to confess. But if that person was a creature of flesh and blood who somehow came to symbolize, for millions of people, boundless experimentation, intelligence and curiosity in the dumbest of all art-forms, constant movement and change, agelessness, uncompromising artistic vision and endless possibilities, a land of pure thought above the mire we can visit every time we put on one of his records... well then that would be the most natural thing in the world.
And that was David Bowie.