Here’s a blog I never thought I’d have to write – I was kind of hoping he’d outlive me. But it’s finally happened, and the internet this week has been made entirely out of sad think-pieces about the death of David Bowie. It feels a bit pointless to be adding to them, and I don’t mind you skipping this post if you’re a bit Bowied out. But I usually do something here to mark the passing of authors and artists who have entertained and influenced me, or who simply formed part of the furniture of my imagination, and he did all of the above. So here are a few rather disconnected thoughts which have bubbled up during this strange week.
1.There was more to come.
Received rockist wisdom would have it that Bowie jumped the shark in the 1980’s and never regained his creative energy. I used to go along with that. It’s certainly true that there’s not much to interest me on any of the 80s albums after the first three tracks of Let’s Dance, and his perma-quiffed international playboy persona wore pretty thin as the decade ground on. But in the ’90s I started to feel a great affection for him again, and I think it was partly because he’d gone so adrift in the preceding decade. An artist who had lost their creative way so utterly was someone you could identify with rather than just admire. And then he found it again! I was very fond of 1: Outside, his much-maligned drum’n’bass art-murder concept album (I still listen to it a lot, though I tend to skip the spoken-word segues). And I like the other late-period albums, too – Heathen and Reality have their share of cover versions and pleasant-enough dad-rock stomps, but there are some beautiful melodies and grand, gloomy anthems too.
I think what made his passing so upsetting was partly this sense that there was more to come – this wasn’t someone long retired whose appearance in the obituary columns makes you nod sadly and recall the great things they did in their prime. Bowie was still changing, still developing, and his final album seemed to herald another change of tack. Tempting though it is to hear Blackstar as a coded announcement of his impending death, I don’t think that’s how it was intended. Many of the songs, particularly the title track and the last two, are clearly meditations on mortality, but so are lots of Bowie songs. I think Blackstar was the beginning of a fertile new period which, alas, we will now never get to experience.
2. He was one of my favourite Science Fiction writers.
Some years ago I was asked to list my favourite post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories, and I realised that one of them had to be Diamond Dogs, which re-imagines 1984 as cocaine-fuelled glam rock malarkey set in a mutant-haunted metropolis called ‘Hunger City’. Bowie, along with JG Ballard and Ray Bradbury, was one of the big SF influences who stayed me through my teens and into adulthood, even when I thought I’d lost interest in SF. His first hit, Space Oddity, is full of Ballardian doubt about the Apollo program, its astronaut hero retreating into inner space. Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs are full-on sci-fi concept albums. Cygnet Committee, Oh. You Pretty Things, and Drive-in Saturday are all built around SF ideas. TVC15 is probably the best song ever recorded about a holographic TV set swallowing the narrator’s girlfriend.
Of course, since he was writing songs rather than stories, DB was freed from the constraints of narrative, and from that bit in SF stories where all the strange ideas have been explained and it becomes just about working out the plot: he can just throw imagery at us. And although, like Ballard,his interest in SF wanes and he moves on, the SF sensibility stays with him to the end*. The video for Blackstar is a fantastic short sci-fi movie.
*There are some fairly obvious points of comparison between Bowie and Dr Who. It’s a neat coincidence that Nicholas Pegg, author of the definitive (and excellent) The Complete David Bowie, also plays Daleks in the modern version of Dr Who.
3. Politicians are allowed to like him…
We might think that David Cameron is a venal shyster with a face that looks as if it’s been crudely drawn on a pink balloon (I don’t say that we do, but we might) yet when he pays tribute to Bowie, and claims to like his music, there’s no reason to doubt him. He’s a man of my age, so it would be surprising if some of these songs hadn’t played some part in his life. And he chose the early, accessible Hunky Dory as his favourite album – if he’d just been trying to look cool he’d have gone for Low or “Heroes”. It’s a little reminder that people whose ideas we may disagree with are actually people, not cardboard-cut-out Demon Kings, and we can have things in common with them despite their politics. There’s a good blog about this here.
4…but they don’t get to claim him.
There’s a Billy Bragg quote that’s been much shared on the internet lately about Bowie and Alan Rickman…
Unfortunately, it’s cobblers. I’m all for social mobility, but the bits about Bowie are quite simply wrong. He wasn’t working class. He didn’t grow up on a council estate. He didn’t go to art college. His ‘confidence in his own creativity’ was already in full flow by the time he left school. It was honed in the British pop scene of the time (which was boisterously private-sector, and partly a reaction against the dull grey conformity of the post-war consensus). And when it made him famous, he left the country to escape eye-wateringly high tax rates. You can’t turn David Bowie into a poster-boy for the welfare state. He’s more complicated than that.*
Nor he is an advert for Great Britain PLC or Cool Brittannia or any of of that Union Jack crap. It was good that he turned down OBEs and knighthoods, and that he didn’t appear at the ludicrous 2012 Olympics opening shindig. And although the sentiment behind this petition is lovely, I don’t think his funky little boat-race should appear on the £20 note…
*You could probably construct a counter-argument that Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke were early heralds of Thatcherism. (Indeed, Mrs Thatcher, with her hawkish profile and platinum barnet, sometimes resembled a rogue Bowie persona who had escaped into real life.)
5. The gnomes are all right.
Helium-voiced 1967 comedy song The Laughing Gnome is usually talked of as a huge embarrassment to Bowie, but actually it’s fine for what it is – a children’s novelty song by a young hopeful who was trying everything to get famous. When my son was little he thought it was hilarious, and made me play it to all his friends, who also thought it was hilarious. Watching four-year-olds roll about going, ‘Ain’t you got GNOMES to go to?’, I understood that TLG succeeds on its own terms and for its own target audience every bit as well as Rebel Rebel or Always Crashing In The Same Car. (Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song blog Pushing Ahead Of The Dame is probably the best Bowie-thing on the internet, played an absolute blinder when he got to the Laughing Gnome.)
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of gnomes…
6. Labyrinth is both underrated and overrated.
I was very excited when the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth came out, not so much for Bowie as for Brian Froud, my favourite illustrator, who designed it. (It felt bizarrely as if someone had taken all my teenage obsessions and dumped them on the screen.) I don’t remember it being very well received at the time – I think the critics were sniffy, and old-school Bowie fans thought their man had finally thrown away the very last shred of his tattered street-cred. I liked it though – it looks lovely, there are nice gags, and it sneaked in some interesting themes. It was one of the Dame’s cannier career moves, since appearing in a children’s film meant that his face (and other bits) would become familiar to generations of new viewers. Nowadays, twentysomethings who grew up watching the video of Labyrinth regard it as a nostalgic classic. But in actual fact, it’s not that good – it’s baggy and oddly paced, and Bowie is a bit wooden.
It always surprises me how such a good performer could be such a bad actor. He’s at his best in roles which just require him to walk on and be David Bowie for a bit. The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those, I guess – it’s not a film I could ever like, but he’s so right for the part that his non-acting becomes almost an advantage, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in The Terminator. He’s good in Basquiat and The Prestige too, not so much because of anything he does, but just because he allows the directors to suggest that Andy Warhol and Nikola Tesla were as weird and cool as David Bowie.
7. Station to Station
It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite Bowie song, or even a favourite period, but Station to Station has always had a special place in my affections. (This live version from the Stage album is my favourite, because the Clangers come in on backing vocals at around 1:06) Can you imagine the effort of will it took me not to nick Station to Station as title for Railhead, my trains-in-space book? I restrained myself, but for a long time I gave it the working title Low “Heroes” instead, and I was only half joking. Originally it was going to be about someone rather rich and pampered, but then I started wondering what a Low “Hero” might be, and decided that my protagonist must be a kid from the streets. Also, the ‘trainsong’ which opens the book always sounds in my mind’s ear a bit like Carlos Alomar’s guitar…
7. He wasn’t the Messiah (he was a very naughty boy…)
The obituaries this week have all focused on what a top bloke Bowie was, and that’s right and proper – speak no ill of the dead is generally good advice, especially when the dead in question haven’t been that way for very long. But we should remember that, like many stars, Bowie was probably a monster for at least part of the time. In the Dionysiac mid-’70s rock scene, high on drugs and crackpot mysticism, surrounded by sycophants and groupies, it would be strange if he had been anything else. One of the things which makes him so impressive is that he managed to step away from all that and turn himself back into a decent human being, but throughout his career he showed a ruthless streak, renouncing his early claims of gayness/bisexuality when he courted a more mainstream audience in the 80s, and dropping long-time collaborators as soon as they had served their purpose. (When Ziggy Stardust announced, ‘it’s the last show we’ll ever do’, that was the first most of the band knew about it). Artists aren’t saints. Some of them behave very badly, and none of them is lovely all the time. What matters in the end is their work.
9. Ashes to Ashes
I think this is the first time I consciously saw or heard David Bowie. It was premiered on TV in 1980 – hailed as the most expensive video ever, as I recall – and I only watched it because I was staying my friend Justin Hill, who knew way more about music even then than I ever will. I remember being unimpressed – it seemed weird and arty and I couldn’t decipher a tune. But afterwards I kept hearing those opening synthesiser sounds, like drips falling off the ceiling of an electric cave, and eventually I ended up in Woolworth’s buying the single. Nowadays I think it’s a perfect example of Bowie at his best – sonically adventurous, but with a nice melody and mysterious lyric, and surprising little flashes of goofy humour – like the deadpan mockney echo-Bowie who speaks the words just after they’re sung, or the fact that when he sees ‘little green wheels’ following him he thinks, ‘oh no, not again‘.
At the time, I’m ashamed to say, I still didn’t really get it, and I soon forgot about Bowie again. But I remembered him when Let’s Dance came out in ’83, and I spent the next few years gradually getting to know his whole back catalogue. His songs have been playing on and off in my head ever since.
EDIT: Looking at this again on the morning after posting it, I realise it doesn’t have an ending – it just stops. It needs something to round it off – ‘R.I.P David’ or ‘Thank you’ or something. But I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound twee. So, as usual when I’m stuck, I’m turning to Sarah McIntyre, who tweeted this yesterday: