Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie: 1947-2016

I have no idea how coherent this will prove to be. By the time I'm finished the moment will probably have passed. But sod it.
About ten past seven Monday morning the radio was stirring me awake, then I hear "we've been trying to confirm reports of the passing of David Bowie" ("I heard a rumour from ground control; Oh no, don't say it's true"), before literally within the next breath the official confirmation was read out. David had been ill these past eighteen months with cancer. He passed away peacefully surrounded by his family. "Where Are We Now?" followed - the very song that signalled David's shock return to the music world three years ago, now accompanied the deeply saddening news he was no longer with us.

It took me a while to process this. David had been, relatively speaking, quite active lately. This past Friday, his 69th birthday, saw the release of his new album Blackstar. Lazarus, the New York Theater Workshop production he had scored, has been on Broadway for a month. Alas, it seemed David was investing in his art as a way of coping with his illness, using his time constructively. Much of the material from Blackstar gained new meaning, particularly the recent video to "Lazarus".

"Look up here, I'm in heaven,
I've got scars that can't be seen,
I've got drama, can't be stolen,
Everybody knows me now"
Blackstar is a challenging and fabulous record. Producer Tony Visconti put it best. "His death was no different from his life - a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift." As the tributes poured in my grief began to grow. Then I saw this picture David's son Duncan shared with the world and my heart pretty much broke. No longer was I contemplating a world without one of its singular, most breath-taking artists but instead a son contemplating a world without his father. It's not a feeling I'd wish upon anyone.

As far back as I can remember David Bowie has been a part of my musical life. Not that my parents were massive fans or anything, but some advert brought "Starman" into my life when I was young enough to be in a buggy. I vividly remember singing it at the top of my lungs being wheeled past my future primary school. According to my mum, my future headteacher had a look on his face suggesting he wondered what on Earth he was in for.

From then on I'd continue to encounter David's music throughout my life - "Space Oddity" turned up at school many times as an introduction to storytelling within song, and was sung to death by me and my mate on the long coach journey to Cardiff for Bolton Wanderers' League Cup Final appearance many moons ago. Placebo's "Without You I'm Nothing" became all the more captivating with him sharing vocals with Brian Molko. "Suffragette City" turned up on the original Rock Band, and "Let's Dance" on Elite Beat Agents. There was just a vividness to songs like "Ashes To Ashes" and  "Life On Mars" that captured your imagination, especially in childhood. In my teenage years Flight of the Conchords would parody that perfectly in their song "Bowie" ("You can borrow my jumper if you like Bowie?") and each of Bret's dream sequences with Bowie in the episode it featured in. "Wear the eye patch Bret, wear the funky funky eye patch."

Something about reaching university made me no longer satisfied with just having his very most famous songs in my life. His "Berlin era" work always had this hugely magnetic pull, but it was Station To Station that was the first album I actually physically bought, showcasing a side to David I was initially not very familiar with the likes of the beautiful "Word On A Wing". Blackstar bears more than a passing resemblance to this album in my mind, with its layout of fewer, longer songs and ventures into slightly different territory.
Delving past what I cherished during childhood brought up so many wonders. "Always Crashing In The Same Car", "Fantastic Voyage", "Five Years", "Quicksand", "V-2 Schneider", "Watch That Man". Bowie's body of work is simply remarkable, virtually unparalleled. Ask people for their favourite song or aspect of his and the list of responses could easily number in their hundreds.

My admiration for his artistry continues to grow, even beyond his own music, like his production work with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (and his wonderful backing vocals on "Satellite Of Love" in particular) and his remarkable performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth. I wish I could have seen Lazarus on stage - the first time I heard the title song was when Michael C. Hall and the cast performed it on Stephen Colbert's show and it just felt magical, it felt like Ziggy again. Hopefully a production will make it over here to Britain, but even if it doesn't I'm hardly lacking in memories of David. I felt tremendously lucky to have seen the David Bowie Is exhibition during its initial London residency, and the totally unexpected The Next Day will always hold great memories for me.

Like millions of people around the world, David made an indelible impression on me. I'm not even going to pretend I've scraped the surface of what he means to the world of music. His imagination seemed boundless and in turn he captured the imagination of so many other artists I admire (LCD Soundsystem, Janelle Monae, Arcade Fire). In principle it shouldn't be shocking to hear a man of 69 has passed away, but in addition to the secrecy that surrounded his illness it was this transcendental nature and vibrancy of David's persona and music that made you think of him as other worldly and free from the reigns of mortality. Of course, it is David himself who put it best in "Quicksand": "I'm not a prophet or a stone-age man, just a mortal with potential of a Superman". While David is no longer with us he will remain immortal through his musical and artistic legacy, which shall outlive us all. It was a privilege David.