Coincidences occupy a strange void, where reasonable and rational explanations, even logic, are often found wanting. One occurred recently, I was listening to ‘Fame’ by David Bowie when I heard that he’d died. Macabre yes, but could anything by more apt or more Bowie?
Of course this wasn’t a coincidence in the truest arcane sense. I was well aware he’d just released a new album and I was gearing myself up for it with a process I reserve for the legends – a refresher of releases past, to see where their new release fits in the hierarchy of their canon.
I’ll admit this seems a bit pointless due to the endless, varied scope of ideas that guided and built Bowie’s career. I’ve yet to properly delve into his final album, and I may wait a while before I do. Indeed, the idea of starting from the beginning and working my way through his whole discography in chronological order, instead of drifting to and from eras, albums or tracks randomly, appeals now more than ever.
Most people of my age (born in the early eighties) only caught on to Bowie with the benefit of retrospect, his legend came fully formed and we were told (rightly) that he was past his creative peak. During my teens it was appreciation by proxy, I was listening to bands that revered, and in a way betrayed, him, so my opinion of him was of a legend, but only for the preceding generations. I felt that those who witnessed his drastic, sudden metamorphoses at the time, in context, had a stronger kindship and investment in what Bowie and his music meant, as they went through the process of finding the explanations for Bowie’s shifting phases and why they were needed. Those indelible marks left on the witnesses helped foment the next musical trend even if Bowie himself often made sure not to join them.
When he did appear in the nineties he offered a glimpse, only a glimpse, of a mythological figure often wielded by boring arseholes to complain (rightfully) about the state of contemporary music. For the likes of myself, too young and impressionable, he was all too easily lost in a morass of vacuous pop niches and trends, many of whom, ironically, claimed him as an inspiration, all grasping for the abundant oxygen provided by the advent of the internet and today the three main squalid social media platforms. How big would Ziggy be in today’s world, could he even exist? I suspect not in the way he’d want, as Bowie’s penchant for privacy, and that back then it was easier to preserve, afforded him the time, distance and secretiveness required to flesh out ideas, maintain personas and allowed his reinventions to truly retain the potency of the unexpected.
The strength of Bowie’s catalogue didn’t begin to fully resonate until my early twenties. The middle of the last decade, was, by and large, a fucking toilet boil (see, now it’s me being a boring old arsehole and a generational tourist to boot), so it helped fill that void.
I offered a full appreciation of Bowie to my mum around the same time, who, being roughly the same age as Bowie, was around for all of it. Her response made me wonder whether the perception of Bowie’s influence in today’s culture was matched by the adulation he received back then. She thought ‘he did write some good tunes’, but that this was undone by his sheer cynicism, ‘a failed actor’ whose reinventions and personas were a ploy to get people to buy his records. You can’t please everyone, but I defy anyone to listen to ‘Gene Genie’ on their headphones as they walk down the street and not feel as if they’re ten feet tall, not be beguiled by the opening lyrics to ‘Life On Mars’ or fail marvel at the sheer depth of brilliant song writing found on Ziggy or Aladdin Sane. Christ, I haven’t even mentioned the Berlin trilogy yet.
Being removed from the time of Bowie’s creative height of the early to mid-seventies allows us to view his albums in the abstract, and minus the claustrophobic peer-pressure of any mass worship that surrounded them and him. Most of his albums are simply too good, too interesting to be cynical. One Direction is cynicism. Kings Of Leon chose cynicism. Jools Holland and his assorted endeavours are cynical. My mum was an independent thinker and very right-on, so her take struck me as odd, and yes, cynical in itself. I’m going to give her benefit of the doubt here and say that she was wielding a technique that Bowie used so effectively – to offer the contrarian perspective to notions and ideas that were reverential and cemented, even if they were previously new and his.
More than the music Bowie’s greatest legacy is that he made forms of artistic otherness seem accessible by constantly probing the strange, esoteric idea of what we think identity, namely our own, should mean to other people. In this sense he was an ironic figure, removing the shame from expressing individuality by being someone other than himself, all the while being himself and never betraying who he is and what he wanted to be – a man of ideas.
On his penultimate album “The Next Day” he asked ‘Where are we now’? Well, now that he’s gone, we’re culturally, intellectually and creativity worse off. ‘Time may change me, but I can’t trace time’. Not true mate. Adios Starman.