Monday, 11 January 2016
I thought I was dreaming, or still liberally mixing dream into reality, when the radio came on this morning at 7:30 and announced that David Bowie was dead. Wait, what? I thought I must have been mishearing a review of his recently-released album Blackstar, or the career summary accompanying the announcement of some award he'd just got. But, no. Wow.
I've often thought of writing a Bowie post, but I've already written much of what little of interest I have to say about him in the posts Walking the Dead and Being There. Besides, Bowie's output has been of minimal interest to me since about 1977. There have been many "Bowie" avatars since then, of course, but "my" Bowie(s) was/were the one(s) that released an unbroken string of outstanding albums from Hunky Dory (1971) to Heroes (1977). Just seven years! Of those albums, the first three – Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane – are the ones that enlivened those crucial dating-and-dancing years. Even now, the first bars of "Rebel Rebel" or "Gene Genie" get me instantly up on my feet, before I remember who, what and how old I am, and the state of my knees and ankles, and quickly sit back down. We used to call it "bopping", you know...
Era-defining "bopping" tracks aside (dum, dum, dum, da-da da-dum, dum, dum -- poor little greenie...), I do have a soft spot for neglected, thoughtful, and atmospheric masterpieces like "Bewlay Brothers", "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", and "Time", and the less-frequently played rockers like "Panic in Detroit", especially where he has avoided the temptation to ladle his dafter, more histrionic vocal mannerisms all over the cleverness of his lyrics. No-one has put their stamp on the edgy, angsty glamour of the teenage Moonage Daydream like David Bowie.
I think it is true to say, however, that Bowie's originality, as such, can be overstated; he was a talented borrower and shaper of ideas and sounds from disparate sources. He looked for inspiration in places few other popular artists would think to look -- William Burroughs, sci-fi, drag queens, mime, kabuki theatre, and so on -- with the consequence that ordinary kids like me and you might take a look there, too. We might not like or understand what we found, but our horizons will have been broadened a little. Although I think the jury is still out on whether the "gender-bending" of 1970s Glam Rock helped or hindered the causes of feminism and gay rights.
And, after all, simple originality is overrated. At his best, what Bowie understood was how to make pop out of art, and not the other way round. This is not what you'll hear in all the instant obituaries, but it's probably a far more significant achievement. Nobody dances to Harrison Birtwistle.