There’s not a lot I can write here that hasn’t been covered elsewhere, but I couldn’t let the week pass without my own tribute to David Bowie, who left us on Sunday, January 10th, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday.
Not for the first time with something Bowie-related, Monday morning’s news was a huge shock. Who knew about that 18-month battle with cancer? But for all the sadness, we’ll always have his music, the legacy he left us, and all that inspired.
Amazingly, he gave us two return-to-form, typically-inventive albums on the approach to and during his fight with the big C, The Next Day (with this blog’s review of that album here) and Blackstar – his respective 24th and 25th studio albums – and both serve as a fitting epitaph that we just hadn’t seen coming and that we’re only just getting to grips with. But while I don’t feel best placed to review the latter here after just a couple of listens, its gloriously-epic 10-minute title track and the similarly-emotive Lazarus suggest another great addition to a rich canon, and something suitably special to go out on.
For all that though, while Bowie had that power to make us feel like kids in the sweetshop again, snapping up Blackstar on his birthday, there was also a sense of thinking ahead, wondering just what might be in store for his 70th birthday. So it’s hard to take that there won’t be one now.
While I never got a chance to see Bowie in person or on the stage over the years, I’ve got all those great albums and singles to savour, plus the many films, interviews, videos and various clips to delve into, and I revisited a few on the day we learned of his passing. My first call yesterday morning had to be Heroes, his celebration of coming out the other side after those early years of excess. It just seemed right to start there, and I felt more than a little dewy-eyed hearing that colossal track in the circumstances. It’s not the first time it’s got me like that either, and wherever we first chanced upon it, or whatever we relate to the experience, it just seems so timeless … and truly powerful.
As part of a day of commendable coverage on BBC 6 Music capped by recent writewyattuk interviewee’s Mark Radcliffe own tribute show, I was in a similar situation hearing the perennially-beguiling Life on Mars. Despite its other worldly theme, it’s as much about Britain in the early ’70s as it is about escapism and things universal, and leaves me feeling nostalgic every time. As music writer John Harris put it on the BBC’s Five Years documentary, it’s a song loaded with imagery that’s ‘very mundane yet magical – he’s seen the cosmos in the bus stop’.
If two emotional moments weren’t enough, it happened again watching the familiar groundbreaking promo footage for Space Oddity during the TV news coverage – a further moment when it sank in that this wasn’t just a bad dream – he’d really gone. Things continued like that for much of the day too, with a few deadlines postponed, coming to terms with it all …. grieving, I suppose.
The rest of Monday had as its backdrop a Bowie soundtrack, right from the moment my better half broke the news via BBC Radio 5 Live. That included a second listen to the new album, a return to 1971’s Hunky Dory to reacquaint myself with particular favourites such as the Velvets-like raunch of Queen Bitch and the playful, celebratory Kooks, and to generally dip in and out of so many more great tracks across the albums from there on. And even my occasional screen breaks involved getting a wider steer on this sad day from the radio and television.
It would serve no purpose to list every Bowie single and album track I hold dear, but so many have made an impression over the years. It was only two weeks ago that I played the entire 39-track EMI 2002 Best of Bowie two-disc CD during a festive visit to my old Surrey haunts from Lancashire, subjecting my teenage daughters – again – to an important part of my pop heritage via that esteemed back-catalogue. There are so many great moments there, as is the case for 1993’s Bowie The Singles Collection and many more before, stretching back to my first proper introduction to this musical enigma, hearing my brother’s Changesonebowie RCA compilation album in 1976, when I was still in single figures.
From The Laughing Gnome (not on any of those collections, but let’s not forget – in the week we also lost dear Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, of Radio 1’s Junior Choice fame – that was part of my youth too) through to a super-camp Pet Shop Boys remix of Hello Spaceboy, he’s caught us out so many times. And from an early fixation with Anthony Newley right through, he never went for the obvious, and let’s be honest, there were points where it took us a while to get our heads around those new directions. Those risks didn’t always pay off, but I for one won’t pay too much attention to the misses, and you won’t find me going on about Tin Machine … honest.
While he was clearly a chancer – opportunist sounds better, I suppose – in forging his career path in those formative years, there was clearly a genius at work here, with a huge appetite for experimentation (chemical and electronic, for starters) – as confirmed by everyone from early contributor (and another 2015 writewyattuk interviewee) Rick Wakeman through to fellow key collaborators like Mick Ronson, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp.
One of the better examples of catching us out involved his biggest global hit album, 1983’s Let’s Dance. Who would have expected the guy behind 1977’s Low and all that to come up with such a blockbuster? But he did it so well, taking on those soulful touches we first saw on 1975’s Young Americans with expert help from Nile Rodgers, proving the true art of pop – without so much of a hint of Andy Warhol that time. Talking of fellow great artists, he worked with so many more too, from his post-Ziggy success with Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed through to Queen and Mick Jagger. And that’s just the more obvious ones. But I’m digressing there.
Being the age I am, I can’t put my hand on my heart and point to any defining moment when Bowie changed my life, however fascinating all those stories are, many told again this week (quite splendidly in a few cases (step forward Billy Bragg and recent writewyattuk interviewee former Tom Robinson, among others), nor wax lyrical about the wonder of seeing Ziggy and his Spiders from Mars in person (my mate Jim Wilkinson gave us a nice layman’s view on that last year, with a link here), but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a great impact on me. It’s just that I’m struggling to pinpoint a specific moment. It’s like he’s always been part of the soundtrack of my life.
It was Space Oddity that first stopped me in my tracks, another moment of opportunism perhaps – latching on to an international hunger for all things Apollo-esque – but one that to this day still sounds so fresh. Yet all I knew about Bowie at first was all I ever heard on Wunnerful Radio 1 or Top of the Pops, or through my sisters and brother and their record collections. Similarly, I can’t honestly recall a specific moment when my old man asked ‘What the hell is that?’ as he pointed at this inspirational gender-bender on our black and white TV set. But chances are that it came during a transmission of Starman or The Jean Genie as this one-off from Brixton and his Hullensian mates Ronson and co. in their big girls’ blouses and space-suits shocked the nation (‘dockers in eyeliner’ is a description I love).
Fast forward a little, and I was certainly aware of the might of the Eno, Fripp and Visconti-augmented Heroes and a fair bit of that era’s material, and remember being genuinely excited by Boys Keep Swinging jumping out of the radio at me on a Cornish holiday in late spring 1979, when I was 11, the first fruits – so to speak – of Lodger, the last of his Berlin trilogy. And as it turned out, DB’s capacity to shock continued right up to this week really.
Having served his apprenticeship in the ’60s via rock’n’roll, r’n’b and his Mod days (and even folk), he translated all that into stardom in the ’70s, inspiring the glam rock era, reinventing soul and shining a light on krautrock along the way. And big changes were around the corner again as we arrived in the next decade, Bowie seeing us into the ’80s in style, courtesy of Scary Monsters and its memorable singles, not least updating Major Tom’s story for Ashes to Ashes, ushering in the Blitz era and spreading the word about that emerging New Romantic world, the die cast for his ultimate pop years and further global success as a video star.
That was an era of contradictions for me as well as him, finding my own feet musically, and while I fully subscribed to Let’s Dance and its finer moments, I wasn’t keen on worshipping a mainstream act. Instead, I concentrated on all I’d missed first time around, this indie kid rediscovering or re-evaluating all those great records. What’s more, I sought out some of the bands that influenced him in the first place and found many more that DB and his peers influenced in turn – the less-commercial, the more street cred, and the industry’s underdogs.
But while it took me a while to return and truly appreciate Bowie again, there were still big moments, from 1984’s Blue Jean to 1986’s Absolute Beginners, the latter adding kudos to a film that unfortunately didn’t work, never living up to the original Colin MacInnes novel. For me – and I know this won’t go down well in certain circles – the music, though pretty much an ’80s take on a late-’50s vibe, worked, not least DB’s title track and contributions from the likes of The Style Council, Working Week, Ray Davies and Sade. Contentious maybe, but Bowie’s main contribution brings a lump to the throat.
As it was, I never drifted too far away, lured back by further discoveries in the catalogue or something like his 1993 contribution to The Buddha of Suburbia. And if there was any remaining doubts over the next two decades as to this icon’s long-term worth they were blown out of the water by The Next Day all those years on – from the moment I first heard the beautifully-poignant Where Are We Now? onwards. And that’s something Black Star appears to build on.
Let’s face it, the Bowie collection is crammed full of genius moments and has plenty to drive the emotions, showing the power of popular music as a positive force. And David Robert Jones has always been there or thereabouts for me, supplying a vital part of the rich soundtrack that has framed my life so far, as he will continue to do. If Bowie’s aim really was, as he suggested in his earlier days, to turn people on to new ideas – a catalyst for ch-ch-changes, you could say – he succeeded in my case and for many more of us.
I’ll stop now, or this may become a feature that is never completed, but I’ll sign off by letting on that I’ve just played Lazarus again, and not only do the lyrics jump out at me every time (‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’), but the moment he surges into that chorus the welling-up starts again. It gets better and more heartfelt with every listen. And however hard it is for us to take, it seems that its author and architect is now free … just like that bluebird. RIP David.