Bowie: The Stars Look Different TodayWritten by Mike Robbo
I knew when I opened my eyes on Monday 11th January 2016, it was going to be a shit day.
Monday mornings by definition are the very nadir of the week, particularly if, like me, you’re well into your 40s, but think you’re just inside your 20s. Trying to squeeze every last drop of sleep out of the last remaining minutes of the weekend. I woke up before my alarm clock as usual, (something that only happens on a Monday), lying in bed, counting down the seconds. Ugh. But this Monday was different. The black cloud was larger than usual and showed no signs of lifting.
I turned over to my phone, as is the drill these days, turned the alarm off a good thirteen minutes before it was due to go off. There’s nothing worse than drifting back off to sleep two minutes before it goes off, that just ensures worse times ahead.
I checked my emails…
Ach! Who am I kidding?
Regrettably, I went straight to social media, like we all do.
It was early; most people were still squeezing the last possible drops of sleep they could out of the weekend. I scrolled down past the videos of cats, the Star Wars fan theories and football clickbait.
Then I came to a link that seemed to scream from the screen. It said:
‘David Bowie is Dead.’
It didn’t really compute. I thought it must be a lone bad review of his new album, which was garnering unanimously glowing evaluations, so alarm bells should have been ringing, but it was Monday morning.
I ignored it, and continued.
There was another. I saw the word ‘cancer’.
Then another, using the past tense to refer to his life.
It was early, so people hadn’t got up. There’s a macabre tradition on social media whereby people get immense satisfaction from being the first in their social circle to post ‘RIP’ and impart the terrible news that people are so glad for when they just wake up. There was none of that, just the apparently Breaking News.
The fact that I thought it was a hoax at first or some extreme theatricality on his part, is testament to how he presented his work. Was this some bizarre performance art? I’m sure most people had to double-take when they were greeted with the headlines on that Monday. No, it was far more complicated than that, and yet, far more simple. More of which later…
What happened next shocked me: My reaction.
My heart sank, like when you’re told the news that a close friend or relative has passed. It was out of my hands. Uncontrollable grief. I’m really not that big on celebrity deaths, and for the most part, don’t really dwell on famous singers, actors, sports stars etc carking it. They may have touched me, but I don’t know them. Why should I shed tears for the rich and privileged?
When Kurt Cobain died, we were out in Leeds at Up Yer Ronson, and Jeremy Healy played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in his house music set, something he often did, but this time it was more celebratory. No one was sad. Perhaps due to the ecstasy, which was still good in ’94. Of course it deeply affected millions, but my hedonism was more important on that night.
With Amy Winehouse, there was a tragic inevitability about it that took the sting out of it. Personally, I’d just been chased out of a very hostile nightclub in Inner Mongolia and was in a hotel room, glad to still be alive myself when I saw that news, so that may have had something to do with it.
Lennon, I remember it well, but was too young for it to have and resonance. Ian Curtis would have slayed me if I had been older, but at 7 years old, I wasn’t even aware of his existence. Others who were favourites, but were mired in a bygone era, such as George Harrison, didn’t move me sufficiently to pen an RIP letter. I was in New York when Tupac was shot, but I was there to see Oasis, so that took priority.
There was really no precedence for how David Bowie’s death affected me.
Although he had put out most of his best work before I was of an age to be arsed about music, his influenced loomed large, unbeknownst to me. My first real memory of him was in my mate’s dad’s car on the way to play football on a Saturday in 1983. ‘Let’s Dance’ came on the radio and my mate’s dad tutted and muttered, ‘ugh, this bloody weirdo, is he back?’ And I just had to find out who this person was that had been away and whose return was now causing this man to be so irate. It was my mission.
These being the days before the internet, I had to wait a good week or two before I saw him on the telly. The song had got to Number 1, and he was on Top Of The Pops. I think it was the (excellent) video and not a studio performance. I absolutely loved the song, but was massively disappointed to find out that he didn’t look like a weirdo at all. He looked like someone’s dad! I had been intrigued by the punks in the bus station when I went in town with my mum, and I had envisaged him to look more way-out than that. What a complete let-down!
But that’s just Bowie fucking with you.
At age 10, these things are just forgotten about. Usually. I forgave him for not being that weirdo that had piqued my pre-pubescent sensibilities, and moved on to Rod Stewart (who had an earring and spiky hair.) By that summer, I had started buying records with my own pocket money, and Rod popped my cherry. Had Bowie just seemed that little bit more rebellious, ‘China Girl’ would probably have had the dubious honour. As it was, ‘Modern Love’ came around at the end of that glorious summer, and the spoken intro just captivated me, ‘I know when to go out, and know when to stay in. Get things done.’ Fortunately, my insubordinate ears heard, ‘I don’t wanna go out, don’t wanna stay in,’ and that was enough for me: first Bowie 7” in the (Woolworths) bag! Because I didn’t wanna go out or stay in or do what I was told either! I’d do whatever I damned well liked. Just like David Bowie! That this was the start of his decidedly unweird phase was beyond my comprehension. I had what I needed: dismissal as a ‘weirdo’, he’d been somewhere and stubbornly come back, much to the annoyance of my mate’s dad, and he didn’t wanna do what he was told. Sign me up! And I was blissfully unaware of what had preceded it.
That Christmas, I got the Smash Hits Yearbook in my stocking, and it was like my bible. I was 11 then, so was definitely old enough to consider myself ready for the contents within. It was filled with absolute gold to someone who had just been musically reborn (I grew up listening to my parents’ Gilbert & Sullivan, jazz and classical music mainly, only catching glimpses of modern pop music on the telly). There was Wham!, Duran Duran, Japan, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Sex Pistols, Soft Cell, Boy George, and all manner of weird and wonderful specimens that had tasted success throughout the year. It was my education. And I finally learned what my mate’s dad was on about. Among the transvestites, punks, New Romantic dandys and Robert Smith, was the most shocking discovery of all: a double-page spread of my new hero and his transformations throughout his career, a year-by-year photographic account of his different images and characters. And I’d seen him before! What was he?
On a very base level, the colours were mesmerizing, but on deeper evaluation (which obviously wouldn’t happen until quite a bit later,) I wanted to understand the rationale behind these startling transformations. At the time though, I struggled to comprehend how this could be the same person, and why he was wearing make-up and dresses. Yes, he was a ‘weirdo’ and I couldn’t quite connect the blonde, sun-kissed, decidedly non-weird singer in the ‘Let’s Dance’ video with the skeletal, androgynous creature in the Ziggy Stardust-era pictures in my yearbook. I knew he was exciting and distinctive, but I also felt a bit scared too. That was me in 1983, in a society accustomed to outlandish appearances, lord knows what it must have been like in 1971, when he unveiled his signature character. I remember being stunned watching Boy George on Top Of The Pops for the first time, and that was with clear precedence, but more than ten years previously, it must have seemed, well, alien.
These days, if you want to find out more, you head to Google and read voraciously on the subject until you become a self-professed expert. In 1983, we didn’t have that luxury, so you’d ask your parents or scour magazines for information. I didn’t have siblings to consult, so my dad’s limited knowledge on the subject just made me want more. There wasn’t the back catalogue culture we have now either, so it wasn’t easy to dig deeper, records were deleted after initial runs, never to appear again in some cases. Dead-end streets everywhere. I managed to get hold of ChangesOneBowie and ChangesTwoBowie, and was surprised to find out that some of the songs had already seeped into my consciousness, but I’d never known or been bothered to find out who sang them in my Gilbert & Sullivan wasteland of musical ignorance. In the first half of the 80s, there was only Rod Stewart, The Police and David Bowie that had prompted me to seek out earlier stuff, but I was at the start of the road, which would turn into a lifelong obsession with music, and I was soaking up everything I could, so my fascination with Bowie was watered down somewhat with the sheer volume of music I was ingesting. My next obsessions were Scritti Politti, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Cure, who I would find out later were all hugely indebted to Bowie. I would return to him though. And he would mean the world to me again.
The outpouring of grief that occurred on that Monday was mammoth in scale, and I was surprised how sincere and good-natured it was. Usually these days, we get small men hiding behind big keyboards just pissing over everything in sight because they can’t get a girlfriend and want to take it out on the world. There’s an army of these angry young soldiers now, you see it all over comments sections on newspapers, Facebook pages, YouTube, Twitter, Last.FM, anywhere (on the internet) people are given free reign to project their sad inadequacies and show you their transparent badge of self-loathing. And from what I saw, they were conspicuous by their absence in the wake of Bowie’s death. Usually when a celebrity dies, there are as many mockers as mourners on the internet, loudly saying what they wouldn’t dare say in public. Amy Winehouse elicited cries of ‘who cares? Another junkie dead, meh.’ The irony of searching for a story and actually being arsed to type that type of comment is clearly lost on them. Jade Goody’s death prompted some extremely distasteful behavior. People love to be cunts on the internet because they hate themselves and they believe they have a bit of power. They weren’t there. Why not?
Could it be that he stood up for the outsider, and they were respecting that? Highly doubtful. I’m sure there was plenty of negativity, but I honestly didn’t see any, and I was glued to the internet all day that day, posting my favourite songs, voraciously reading every credible article. Or could it simply be that, due to the constantly innovative and evolving nature of his career, that in that extensive body of work, there was something for everyone to cherish. And it wasn’t just his recorded output that people could draw on. It’s everything about him. There’s the music, the acting, the notion that he had one foot in the avant-garde and the other in the mainstream, the costumes, the fashion, the charm, the sexuality thing, the innovation, the celebration of the outsider, the constant need for reinvention, the psyche and so much more. There’s a lot to chew on, and most bases are covered. Getting football hooligans to cut and dye their hair orange and wear clothes with sequins on was a pretty miraculous achievement in the 1970s when ‘men were real men, none o’ that PC rubbish.’ Maybe a more miraculous achievement was to get three hairy blokes from Hull to wear leotards and, in the case of Mick Ronson, simulate fellatio with him on stage. It’s been said that he had the ability to charm the pants off anyone he met with consummate ease. He could find common ground with absolutely anyone due to his rabid thirst to learn everything about everything. This personable approach evidently worked on a mass scale; he was able to tap into most people’s souls to find common ground. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t find something to love in that vast arsenal of talent.
A lot’s been said on the subject of his championing of the unique. There’s not much to add there really, other than it’s intriguing to think of the impact he must have had when he became a household name. We simply cannot imagine what it must have been like seeing that on your TV screens whilst you scoffed your tea off a tray in the early 70s. As I previously mentioned, seeing Boy George for the first time was a landmark moment, but without Bowie, this wouldn’t have been possible, for he battered down doors of prejudice a decade previously, challenging people’s ideas and pushing his to the extreme. Not only was he gay or bisexual (or neither), but he was an alien rock star wearing heavy make-up and a Japanese kimono with his massive cock clearly visible through his silk hot-pants. We take this kind of thing for granted now, we’re not easily shocked, but if nothing else, the sheer audacity and courage to present yourself to the nation is hugely impressive, and more importantly, unprecedented. Engaging in homosexual acts was illegal in the UK until 1967, and although it obviously existed before that time, it was taboo, I doubt anyone wanted to be the first through the door (in mainstream society), never mind doing it in platforms, sashaying like a catwalk model and actually hamming it up in people’s faces. Man, that was brave. So, yes, the celebration of being different was huge at that time, when kids probably just wanted to blend in for fear of being smacked, it must have been like having an imaginary (exquisitely manicured) hand on your shoulder telling you it was ok, your weirdness is your weapon, like a Jedi master whispering to the disaffected, urging them to cherish what made them unique, and if harnessed correctly, their force could destroy the forces of evil.
The word ‘chameleon’ always crops up when discussing Bowie, but a chameleon changes to hide, to blend in; Bowie was urging the freaks to stand out and fly their flag in the face the previous generation’s narrow-minded stuffiness, which must have seemed hopelessly square. All those big ideas from the 60s that were never really followed through, but here was Bowie was putting them into action, piece by piece in the 70s, and it must have been exhilarating for the kids, and fucking terrifying for their parents, in equal measures. He was doing nothing short of spearheading our own cultural revolution. That was arguably his greatest achievement. His contribution to the very fabric of our society is inestimable. And it hurts my head trying to imagine the frenzy of emotions it must have elicited and the sheer size of Bowie’s testicles for being so brave putting himself out there like that. Even though his cat-suits left little to the imagination on that front. He wasn’t the pioneer of countercultural movements, but he can be said to have beamed overtly subversive concepts right into your mum and dad’s living room and challenging mainstream ideology. Just as drugs opened people’s minds on a massive scale in the 60s, Bowie was opening them further in the 70s. It’s a wonder he wasn’t assassinated.
As for his body of work, that speaks for itself. An accomplished producer, actor and painter, however you don’t need me to tell you that it will be his music that he is remembered for. A solo star who always surrounded himself with the very best musicians. It’s foolish to suggest he started music genres all by himself, but he was a sponge, and would soak up elements of what fascinated him, usually from underground avant-garde scenes, and craft them into something more palatable and entirely his own with the aid of his hand-picked producers and musicians. Some might say he was the most enthralling magpie in the history of British pop music, his ability to absorb and create was superhuman, he never tired of searching for new ways to realise his vision. Rock music had gone a bit up its own arse at the end of the 60s, so he shook it up and redefined the conventional ideas of what being a rock star was all about. When punk came along in the mid-70s, he was one of only a handful of artists that weren’t shat on by the hip young gunslingers, the Year Zero mentality that was going on forbade anyone to look to the past because it was all shit, except him, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and New York Dolls, despite the movement being quite conventional, having its roots in 60s garage music and R‘n’B. Bowie’s response to these public namechecks was to reject trad-rock arrangements almost entirely, he was way above and beyond belonging to any scene, how crass! Sex Pistols finally got their album out in 1977, after forming in 1975. In this time, Bowie had recorded and released a triple whammy of Station To Station, Low and Heroes, about as far from one-dimensional, staid punk as it was possible to be.
From a man who couldn’t get arrested in the 60s, no matter what he turned his hand to, the progression was frightening. The run of albums from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ to (arguably, because it was my point of entry) ‘Let’s Dance’ is without doubt the greatest run of albums in music history, the quality control level is breathtaking. 12 albums in 13 years with a 3-year break between the final two records. A level of prolificacy that will simply never exist again, never mind the fact that they were all masterpieces, taking in at least four stage personas as vehicles for his songs, Ziggy Stardust possibly being the best-loved. His post-Let’s Dance work ushered in a new, unwanted phase in his career, that of stadium rock star, but one who had seemingly lost his spark, as his releases garnered progressively worse critical evaluations, until he was considered a spent force. Things improved in the mid-90s, and got considerably better post-millennium, with his final two albums being hailed as work comparable to that of his 70s masterclasses. His final album, Blackstar, was released on 8th January 2016, his 69th birthday.
By 10th January 2016 David Bowie was dead.
Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the album.On first hearing, it’s again the sound of an artist embracing his past rather than running away from it. A man old and wise enough to acknowledge that he can’t continue to push boundaries and break new ground. It’s a more experimental album than its predecessor, The Next Day, incorporating a healthy dose of saxophone and avant-jazz noodlings, his latest studio cohorts being a quartet of New York jazz musicians, and it’s not too big on melody, its rhythms propelling the album forward at varying paces. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s an ultimately rewarding one that needs perseverance.
And then he died.
And people scuttled back to the album. This wasn’t just the latest David Bowie album. This was intended as a parting gift. The clues were there and they loomed large. The cover is black. The funereal pace of the record is the second signpost, being the first element the listener notices. A black star is a cancer lesion. The lyrics explicitly reference death everywhere, most notably on ‘Dollar Days’ with the repeated refrain of “I’m dying too” a sledgehammer in the face, ramming it home just in case you hadn’t been paying attention. Which, evidently, no one had been because it had critics rushing back to their laptops to pen re-evaluated reviews after their findings. It was to be the final act of a glorious career, which had threatened derailment, but had been brought back on track, presumably to ensure the most dignified of exits, a typically theatrical David Bowie way to bow out: the most extreme piece of performance art in the history of music. And a fitting end to a life which had given so much, now he was giving us his life. He already had decades ago. He gave us everything he had.
And so that was the end of arguably the single most influential artist in recorded music history. There had been other deaths in his career. He had killed off all of his characters, and breathed new life into his mid-80s to mid-90s fallow period (perversely the period when he was playing massive stadiums). His constant reinvention and development, a product of his restless mind and voracious need for knowledge and stimuli, was a thing of wonder; in effect, he successfully put to bed entire stages of his career to move on to something completely different. It must have been exhausting. In being fearless, moving in different directions, he gathered a staggering amount of disciples and changed millions of people’s lives. That’s not an exaggeration; he caused changes in attitudes, encouraged weirdos to be confident, fucked around with society’s norms.
He wasn’t just any pop star, and as well as the unparalleled body of astonishing art he left us, constantly innovating by picking up and synthesising bits he picked up on his travels, he was something of a messianic, Pied Piper-type character, the figurehead of a new kind of sensibility, who opened minds and changed lives. And for everything, we should be eternally grateful. It’s impossible to put a number on those he influenced, but it’s more far-reaching than The Beatles because it wasn’t only about music, it touched so many bases. He influenced everyone.
And although he will be sorely missed, we can’t be selfish. He’s earned the right for his soul to go wherever it was it came from.
In “Quicksand”, one of my favourite Bowie songs, from the peerless Hunky Dory, he sings, “Knowledge comes with death’s release.”
Here’s a Terry Pratchett quote: “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”
David Bowie will never die.
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