Remembering David Bowie: 1947 – 2016
One week has passed since we lost David Bowie. In this article, some of SCM’s contributors talk about what Bowie meant to them.
Jozef Raczka: There’s no two ways about it: The world has lost an artist in the truest sense of the word. David Bowie died at the age of 69 – I’d like to imagine wherever he is, he got a kick out of that. I think my first full album exposure to Bowie was listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars and that also coincidentally may have been my first exposure to a perfect album. He would go on to make Low, “Heroes”, Diamond Dogs, Let’s Dance, ‘Ashes to Ashes’… frankly, I could fill my 500 words here listing all the songs he’s written that I’ve loved but I don’t know whether you really want to read that.
The simple truth about Bowie is that there were few like him, he wasn’t just a singer, a musician, a showman, an actor, a dancer, an artist, he was impossible to pigeon hole purely because he kept defying expectations. Even in recent years he managed to defy expectations, refusing to be the ageing rocker soullessly cashing in on decades of success. Really, they probably had to make a few new categories just to fit him.
Bowie’s career was one full of glorious contradictions. Here was a man who could release an album of neo-classical absurdity and, not long after, make a cameo in Extras and manage to not only steal the scene but the whole damn show. (Also, if you didn’t realise, his song from Extras is basically a prototype version of ‘Where Are We Now?’. Seriously, listen to them, same chord progression and everything.)
He did it better than anyone. When people call Michael Jackson the King of Pop, I used to question it and say, “What about Bowie?” Then I realised; he didn’t need to be called the King of Pop, he was just straight up The King. On top of that, he was the Goblin King.
There was no one else who could do what he did (except perhaps Tilda Swinton, but that’s another article completely). One of my favourite moments is when he turns up in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, ostensibly playing an FBI Agent. Really, though, he’s still playing Bowie. His performance is so odd, so arch and ultimately unconnected to the plot, but he still hangs in the memory and gels perfectly into the world purely because he is David Bowie. The more you think about it, no one else could be the part because it takes someone like David Bowie to make something bizarre and unnecessary still memorable.
I don’t know how to end this. Do I talk about Greta Gerwig dancing down the street to ‘Modern Love’ in Frances Ha? Do I talk about his superb, off-kilter dialogue with Bing Crosby on ‘Peace On Earth/Litte Drummer Boy’? Do I tell you to listen to his rendition with Arcade Fire of ‘Wake Up’? I don’t know. 500 words aren’t enough to say goodbye, so I guess this’ll have to do.
James O’Donoghue: I saw a headline that said something to the effect of David Bowie being the Beatles of the 1970s. Being the Beatles of anything is quite the compliment. Unless it’s David Bowie. To say David Bowie was the Beatles of the 1970s is an understatement.
My first exposure to Bowie that I’m aware of comes from the BBC crime drama Life on Mars. The first episode featured the titular song and from then on I was hooked. Me being at an age where the internet was slow and downloading music seemed somehow mythic and wrong, I bought his compilation album, as many fanboys start. The more I listened the more surprised I was. It was like several artists all at once. I didn’t care what period the tracks came from. If I liked a song, I liked the song.
The more I listened the more surprised I was and the more I learned. I got to a point where I started to listen to his albums, my dad being a Brian Eno fan and having Low and “Heroes”. I’d start at one track as the epicentre of my listening, sometimes I’d let it play after I’d listened to the track I wanted. Sometimes I’d accidentally pick the wrong track and then listen anyway. Low and “Heroes” are two of my favourite albums to this day. I dare say they will be for a very long time. Then I heard ‘Five Years’ on the TV. I’d never heard anything like it. Except I had. It was stripped back but operatic, minimal yet powerful.
Bowie became a key to some of the friends I made. I listened to Earthling with my mate and berated it or praised it, depending how we felt when I listened to it. Bowie became a key in some of the comedy I watched. Adam Buxton, one of my comedy icons, made a show for 6 Music about the life and work of David Bowie and remains a treat to fans of ‘Zavid’ as well as Dr. Buckles.
The album I listen to for nearly everything my life needs a soundtrack to is The Next Day. One of my favourite Bowies is the old, skeletal, mischievous man, somewhere between The Doctor and The Joker. Now I look back at it, perhaps he was too skeletal, perhaps he wasn’t. I have no way of knowing and I don’t profess to.
But he was the skeletal figure laughing as much as he mourned. He was the man in the tattered union jacket. He was the clown walking down the street with his mum. He was the thin white duke, flirting with fascism and all sexes. He was Ziggy. He was doomed. He was the long haired man in a river. I even dare say he was the laughing gnome. He was all of these things and so much more, all at once.
David Bowie wasn’t the Beatles of the 1970s. He was the David Bowie of forever. What else can you say but:
“David. Thank you.”
Daniel Abbott: One of the first albums I ever purchased was David Bowie’s Young Americans. As a young teenager grappling with notions of identity and hormonal imbalances, the album was a godsend because it just didn’t give a fuck. My understanding of Bowie prior to this was wrapped up in the glam-warrior paraphernalia of the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane years – the purple lightning bolt on an ivory face, dripping androgyny – so to suddenly hear him crooning over comforting waves of Philadelphia soul was something of a revelation.
It was the first time I became truly aware of Bowie’s legendary adaptability, and it wouldn’t be the last. From the folk whimsy of his earliest work to the laissez-faire daring of Ziggy; the expressionist Krautrock of the Thin White Duke to the grinning pop lord of Let’s Dance; the brood of Berlin to the drum n’ bass forays of Earthling; right up until the morbid rebirth of The Next Day and Blackstar, now become his epitaph, Bowie was shifting, restless, incandescent. He rode the crest of a wave that left the rest of the music industry trailing in his wake.
But Bowie was the sort of creative spirit that wouldn’t – couldn’t – be restrained by the trappings of mere music. Beyond appearing to rave reviews as John Merrick in the 1980 Broadway version of The Elephant Man, his turn as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth remains one of the most eerie, glacial performances by any actor. His cameos in The Prestige, Fire Walk with Me and Zoolander are wonderfully bizarre and unforgettable, and then there’s his seminal turn as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, a film so dripping with camp and hairspray and jodhpur-packed bulge that it’s impossible not to be endeared by it.
Rarely has an artist so readily disappeared into the breadth of his work. Though he shed his disguises as much as he donned them, Bowie was, irrepressibly, Bowie. The endless, international outpouring of goodwill following his untimely death is neither surprising nor undue. The man was a chimera made flesh; something impossible made manifest, there in the (sort-of) heterochromatic eyes of a bloke from Brixton who left school at 15. He was, by turns, a spaceman, a glittery dream, a mad aristocrat, a pop idol, the babe with the power, an elder statesman… the list goes on. Sometimes, he was even David Robert Jones.
There was, and still is, a Bowie for everyone. For me, it’s the stark, black and white image of a gaunt young man in a shirt and waistcoat; back turned, his left arm is fixed in a wave, and his right arm is arced behind his back, palm open. He’s surrounded by shadows. None of them can touch him.
Poppy Tester: “Soon, the gigs in the sky are going to be better than the ones here on Earth.” – Some guy on YouTube. Sadly, this is one of the truest summations of Bowie’s death I’ve heard. As he flies off to join Reed, Hendrix, Joplin and one half of the Beatles to join The Great Gig in the Sky, we can’t help but feel that an era is ending now that Bowie has gone.
For many of Bowie’s mourners, this era happened before their parents were even old enough to conceive the idea of conceiving them. But see Ziggy’s pop art face, or the opening chords of ‘Life on Mars?’ and we’re ‘Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ in a romantic past we can only dream of – effervescent BBC broadcasts and bejewelled pantsuits – a blinkered view of the Sixties and Seventies that ignores the social and financial struggles of the time, but when it comes to being transported by music and style, who cares?
For those who lived through it, Bowie is often cited as the soundtrack of their youth and has remained as such throughout their lives. With a career that spanned 50 years, Bowie was always there, and it felt like he always would be. Every era belonged to him – he did his own thing and the fans flocked to him (‘The Laughing Gnome’ aside, but even that isn’t without its charm). Yet he never moulded himself to fit with the latest fads, and because of that his music will never seem outdated. Even as he aged, he never seemed uncool, or desperately clinging to relevance at all costs. He moved with the times, whilst always remaining Bowie.
He crossed and connected generations. Speaking to my mum after his passing –
Her: “The last Bowie concert I went to -”
Me: “What do you mean, the last? You went to more than one? You went to any? How did I not know about this?”
Her: “Well, you weren’t born yet.”
That “concert where he came down in the giant spider” turned out to be the Glass Spider Tour of 1987. Basically, Bowie has made my mum cooler.
He was a pioneer, not only musically (collaborators recall how they were often taken aback by Bowie’s chord progressions, expecting the next note to be typical, and instead being hit by something completely unexpected) but in his stage craft – he was perhaps the first performer to marry rock music with theatricals, particularly in his 1974 tour for Diamond Dogs.
Bowie wasn’t simply a sprite made of stardust. A man of many stylistic and musical incarnations, it seems groan-worthy that when I think of Bowie, I think of the Bowie who floated around a tin can.
As someone who is scientifically challenged, the wonder and majesty of space can only be represented by art. It’s a big task – to represent the vastness of the universe and our paling insignificance in comparison. ‘Space Oddity’ captured the sparkling sense of wonder, but with a darker edge as – we are curious pioneers, but we are also fragile. The vision of the doomed spaceman even inspired some of my own writing (a four line poem but hey, it counts).
It was a theme that would permeate his last album. His voice is a mournful hymn, set against the backdrop of a celestial blend of rapid drums and warm sax, telling of “the Villa of Ormen” in which there is “a solitary candle”. The “Villa” is a house of serpents, this serpentine imagery suggesting a coming a full circle, ouroboros style. And there it is at the beginning – Major Tom (?) lying dead on an unknown planet. Bowie is returning to the beginning to say goodbye. It’s morbidly captivating, so much so that I was holding my mum’s hand while watching it. “What do you think it’s like knowing you’re about to die?” she asked. And the answer is: this, probably.
“He prophesied his own death!” scream others on Youtube. But, sadly, Blackstar was the work of a man who knew his days were numbered. But, in his own words: “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with the potential of a superman. I’m living on.” And, it’s true.
Bowie did the unthinkable and turned his impending death into art – working up until the end, a force of unfathomable creativity. Like Major Tom’s skull in the ‘Blackstar’ video, it’s a last gift we can treasure. A true showman to the very end. Even post-drugs, Bowie was on a plane of his own, and it was glorious. We are very lucky that he shared it with us.