David Bowie 1947-2016

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

As inconceivable as it feels, David Bowie has died. The Starman has left this planet. The Thin White Duke has thrown his last dart. It’s been mere hours since his death was announced and already thousands of words have been written attempting to sum up the great man’s life and work.

Which in and of itself feels like something of a ridiculous, Sisyphean task. Bowie did such a fastidious job of curating and polishing his own legend, at the same time as preserving his mystery, that it’s almost impossible to write about him without plopping out such tired clichés as describing him as a ‘chameleon’ (when, as many have pointed out, a chameleon changes its appearance to match its environment, something Bowie never did).

At the same time, summing up Bowie could be very easy. He was the best. The. Best. The best pop star we ever had. Probably the best we’ll ever get. Almost certainly better than we deserved.

Bowie kept being great long after he had any business doing it, when any other rock codger would have retired to their country mansion while hired accounts looked for tax loopholes to siphon the piles of money made from periodic comeback tours. Bowie, on the other hand, released an album of skronking jazz, art-rock and ambient electronica on his 69th birthday. Even though he probably knew he was dying at the time (which is heart-breaking). Perhaps because he knew it would be his last artistic statement and he wanted to bow out on a very Bowie kind of artistic high: strange, otherworldly, bloody-minded.

It’s that sheer bloody-mindedness that I will miss maybe most of all. It’s a quality so rare in music stars and, in many ways, Bowie originated it. It became his trademark. No one asked Bowie to invent a bisexual cockney alien alter-ego, but he did and it made him a star. No one asked Bowie to kill off that alter-ego at the height of his success but he did that too.          

In 1974, Bowie staged the most audacious tour ever, full of props and sets, to promote his Diamond Dogs album. He even had a cherry-picker to lift him over the crowd. Halfway through, he got bored, gave all the props to a local school and continued the tour as a soul revue with an almost empty stage.

Probably no one except Bowie himself thought he could pull off a reinvention as a soul singer. He did it, and in the process cracked America. No one, least of all his record company, wanted Bowie to walk away from the massive success of his soul period, move to Berlin and mess around on synthesisers with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, with no clear end project in mind. But by sticking to his guns, Bowie brought electronic music to the masses and effectively invented the 80s.

Whenever Bowie found himself stuck in the same car, he promptly crashed it and then crawled from the wreckage somehow unharmed, often improbably stronger, cooler and sexier. Not every transformation was wholly successful. In 1983, after more than a decade as a talismanic figure for every artistic weirdo on the fringes, Bowie pulled off perhaps his most audacious stunt by turning himself into one of the 80s' biggest, shiniest pop stars. The resulting record, Let’s Dance, may not be a great Bowie album, but it sure as hell is a fantastic, fun pop album, probably the best of the 80s.

Bowie was at his best, and most artistically potent, however, when he embodied the outsider yearnings of pop fans. Like The Beatles before him and The Sex Pistols after, Bowie gave his fans permission. If The Beatles gave people permission to be happy and optimistic after the long, grey post-war years, and The Sex Pistols gave youth permission to be angry and nihilistic, then Bowie gave impressionable, uncertain kids permission to become their fantasies.

In the guise of Ziggy Stardust, just five years after the legalisation in the UK of homosexuality, just three years after the Stonewall riots in the US, Bowie told kids it was OK to be gay, or bisexual, or anything you wanted to be. Why even be human? Be an alien. Be a messiah.

His effect on pop music was seismic. Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Siouxsie Sioux, Ian Curtis, Boy George, Madonna. They all fell under the spell of Ziggy. Future Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook owed a more direct debt to Bowie after they pinched a fair load of equipment from his legendary 1973 gig at the Hammersmith Odeon.  

It’s impossible to overstate Bowie’s influence on pop culture. Imagine if Bowie had never existed – what would music be like? Take away Ziggy, the electronic art-rock of the Berlin period, his pioneering embrace of cutting-edge music videos, his boundary-pushing stage shows, his post-modernism, his gender-bending, his genre-bending, the way he championed so many obscure artists, including Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, how he brought garage rock, funk, soul, jazz and Krautrock to the ears of unwitting British and American kids.

Take all that away and what you’re left with looks and sounds nothing like the music of the last 30 years. David Bowie wove himself fundamentally into the DNA of pop music. Even if you think you don’t like David Bowie, you do, because you’ll like an artist or a band who would sound totally different without him.

If we go along with the theory of there being alternate realities, and accept that in an infinite number of universes every possibility is played out, then let’s just take a moment to appreciate how insanely fucking lucky we are to exist in the one where David Robert Jones fulfilled his artistic potential. We got the best of him. 

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