You usually write about arts events in London, but this week, though you saw a couple of shows, nothing seems more attractive to write about than the passing of the artist known as David Bowie. This is not a London event of course but a world event that even seems to have implications for the stars, the heavens, for outer space.
Its a strangely, or well-timed departure for Bowie, who became a ‘household name’ by singing about and embodying the persona of a late 20th century ‘Starman’ or astronaut. In the week he died an equally British astronaut was grinning down from the spacelab now orbiting the earth.
Though with Bowie you have a million places to begin, none of which would be right and all of which would be rewarding, this particular entry-point is important because the ‘Starman’ leads you immediately to the mix of theatricality, technology, transcendence and its glamorous failings that distinguish Bowie and his career from legendary figures in other musical fields and styles, such as Michael Jackson or Bob Marley.
From the outset Bowie seemed distracted by theatre. The comic singer and actor Anthony Newley was as much an influence on him as ‘Robert Zimmerman’ or ‘Andy Warhol’ -both of whom he explicitly referenced in his early songwriting. In fact, listening to Newley’s 1950s output now the likeness is sometimes uncanny.
But rock, or rock & roll, when Bowie first cast his unnerving, un-matching and truly ‘beady’ eyes upon it, was NOT, as far as you know, ‘theatre.’ Elvis may have become a glittering Las Vegas star by the late 60s but the ‘rock’ that had grown from rock & roll was growing increasingly ‘heavy’, leading four of its leading exponents to confirm this direction by calling themselves ‘Led Zeppelin’.
Bowie, however, saw other possibilities for rock in a certain otherworldiness, a kind of lightness that meant any such truth to the materials of guitar noise could also give way to a theatrical state of constant invention and possibility, a ‘rock’ or ‘rock & roll’ in which both the music and the persona becomes, not more true, heavy, real or authentic but even more of a work of art, and the artist an image.
And that is what you always want and always wanted Bowie to remain, an image. He was not the kind of artist you would enjoy seeing interviewed. His performance there never seemed to quite work-out or hold-up. It was too real. Bowie, for you, was a poster, a pop video and a repertoire of songs whose lyrics created a kaleidoscope of changing scenes in your mind as you tried to follow their fantastic logic.
His music too, though increasingly enhanced by other great musicians and producers, was, from the outset, equally untethered to reality or tradition, always taking unexpected turns and flights, from word to word, line to line, verse to verse, song to song and from album to album. In a period of unprecedented fertility for musical invention Bowie’s music somehow almost always managed to stand out and stand above the context against which it appeared.
Bowie might thus inspire you to consider the question: ‘what is the opposite of a chameleon?’ Perhaps it is one who always stands out as utterly different to their surroundings?
Or it may be one who changes their surroundings -rather than themselves- so as to disappear, but perhaps simply to feel at home, to become part of, to join a world to which they might otherwise fear they simply do not belong. Bowie was of course a champion and guide for numerous ‘others’ and outsiders.’
It seems important today to remember and cherish that which -about this monumental and magnificent artist – was also vulnerable. You sense it in the interviews. Bowie obviously felt different and was brimming with an irrepressible, strange creativity from an early age. But was he incurably banjaxed after being thumped by a school ‘friend’ who thus left one of his eyes freakishly discoloured, potentially ruining his adolescent androgynous good looks? Did this discomforting experience at a sensitive, formative age perhaps accelerate his flight to the stage, into costume, make-up and various personae, also motivating his unusually, adamantly determined claim to fame?
Dying is of course something else that is too real for David Bowie. The artist who rendered rock & roll (as well as folk and soul) simulacral, had already sung ‘Ashes to Ashes’ while dressed as a hyper-Pierrot in a morbid pop video funeral cortege that condemned Major Tom to “Junky” status. Years earlier he’d ‘killed off’ Ziggy stardust by announcing his ‘death’ from the stage at the end of a gig.
Now he seems to have turned his own death into some kind of image. There’s a new album, with videos and lyrics laced with tricks and clues, accompanying a death as a news event that (theatrically) surprised not only you and the rest of the world but even his close friends. Just last Friday you were listening to the song ‘Blackstar’ played on the radio, after which the DJ said (in a way that now seems spookily foreboding) “Aaah David Bowie! It’s sooo great to have him back!” Early on Monday you heard he was dead.
But then perhaps every death is ‘unreal’ or ‘too real’. People make small talk and even laugh at funerals. We dress for and stage them in such a way as to show that, in fact, we simply can never understand or confront death. And thus we prove to ourselves that we do not confront or understand very much at all. Life too is a theatre, an image, a simulation within which the real may be buried like an elusive grail, something only heard of, like a nasty rumour.
Bowie brought glamour to rock, but glamour (like punk) is a double-edged word that implies a certain mendacity and meretricity. Glamour sparkles and convinces but the earrings and makeup will all come off at some point. Smooth skin, real or concocted, turns to wrinkles and pits, as glamour fights -as Bowie increasingly did – to usurp reality, to take reality’s place, to take away the power reality has over you.
From the image of the ‘Starman’ “sitting in my tin can”, to the cold-war chic of his Berlin trilogy, and on to the thundering soul swagger of ‘Fame’ and ‘Let’s Dance’, Bowie, at his best always managed to bring to popular music a unique version of glamour, derived in part from theatrical influence of mavericks like Newley, exacerbated by encounters with the New York underworld, but always allied with that particularly voracious need for special attention that only drab, uniform English suburbia can instill in you.
There is so much more you would like to write, particularly about how and why Bowie’s music and lyrics could have so set themselves apart from all else (please see the link below for just one amazing example among literally hundreds).
But for now you feel you just have to show respect and gratitude to someone unique, brilliant, talented and generous, an artist who always strived to hit heights and extend the possibilities of creativity (to “jump the silent cars that slept at traffic lights…” [from ‘Panic In Detroit’]). David Bowie was / is an artist who always asked deep and serious questions about his art, and who always worked to share his special qualities and talents with you and with so many others, allowing you to transcend (if only momentarily, theatrically -not ‘really’), to inhabit something more than, better than ‘reality’, at least for a while.