I have no claims to a special relationship with David Bowie. I’d never even seen him live, let alone met him. I bought some of his albums and really liked them but other phases of his career passed me by without much in the way of interest on my part. I thought he seemed an interesting guy but months went by without me paying any attention to what he was doing. And yet – when I heard that he had died I felt a sense of loss which took me by surprise. For 45 years, David Bowie has been part of my cultural landscape and now he is gone.
I think there is a difference between loss and grief, (although the two emotions often overlap). For me grief is related to significant personal relationships, someone with whom we have talked, liked, loved, laughed and argued with, and their death leaves leaves a ragged, bloody hole torn in the fabric of our lives. David Bowie’s death has no impact on my day to day life, and to claim grief seems unwarranted, trespassing on the real bereavement suffered by his family and friends.
Yet on another level each of us creates our own cultural landscape to support and inspire us in life. Films, songs, plays, works of art, sporting achievements and their creators are selected as having a particular meaning for us, they are ‘ours, some more important than others, and we draw strength and meaning from them. David Bowie was part of my personal landscape.
I remember buying Aladdin Sane during the Easter holidays of my first year at university. Staying on my own in a room on a largely empty campus I played the album repeatedly. Despite some initial misgivings about the roleplaying (which went against my desire for rock to be ‘authentic’), I appreciated the emotion displayed in the songs and a bravery about being different which spoke to my much more muted attempts as a young adult to find and be my own person.
The next Bowie music that I really liked was Station to Station, but within a few months of the album’s release Bowie had sunk into a coke fuelled paranoia, complete with rambling flirtations with fascism. This was a step too far. I was an avid reader of the music press but made a point of ignoring anything about Bowie, clearly yet another in long line of rockstar casualties drowning in their own self-importance.
In the late seventies I started hearing some strange electronic music, epic yet threatening, which turned out to be the instrumental side of the Low album. The accompanying interviews and profiles talked about how Bowie had gone to Berlin with Iggy Pop in an attempt to clean themselves up. There were stories about the two living in a shabby part to the city, walking and cycling around, and living in a style that seemed far more ‘starving artist in garret’ than ‘rock star in limousine’. Despite my remaining discomfort with the earlier ‘Hitler as rock star’ comments, I was impressed that the guy was trying to clean up his act without any PR crafted confession all about his ‘cocaine hell’ designed to attract a few more column inches. Whilst Bowie’s ‘lifestyle issues’ were public knowledge, the man himself seemed focused more on developing his musical output in a form that interested him. The smart career mover would have been to recycle his greatest hits, but instead Bowie had set off in the radically different direction marked out by the Low / Heroes / Lodger trilogy as well as producing The Idiot and Lust for Life for Iggy. The determination to follow his own artistic direction was impressive.
Let’s Dance was dismissed by many as just a pop / dance album – I loved it. Great songs driven along by huge slabs of rhythm. I seemed to spend most of 1983/4 dancing to virtually the entire album at gigs and parties all over South London. This was the last Bowie album I bought. Throught the 80’s, 90’s and the early years of this century, I would hear and like occasional individual Bowie tracks without feeling any compulsion to explore more. Over this time Bowie’s own public profile diminished. To begin with it seemed that he was in semi-retirement, emerging occasionally with a new album or being seen at some event, often to support other artists . He’d married again and had a daughter. As my own life increasingly centered around fatherhood, I liked the fact that he’d chosen not to become the cliched ageing rock star sleeping with a succession of ever younger conquests, instead living a low key family life in New York. Rumours of heart attacks and illness surfaced from time to time, but little was heard directly from the man himself.
Bowie had always seemed at the forefront of modern art, both in terms of technology and other innovations and also the use of self (or a version thereof) as an intrinsic part of his work. He was the first mainstream artist that I could remember talking about being gay / bisexual, but rather than being a surprise, this made sense in terms of the sense of otherness / outsiderdom that was a core part of his music and acting. However, over the last couple of decades, there also seemed to be a growing sense of privacy to Bowie’s personna, which I found increasingly attractive in an era where ‘celebrities’ compete to share the most intimate of personal details.
Even in the Ziggy / Aladdin Sane period, Bowie had often revealed less than at first it seemed. His comments on sexuality and gender contained a large element of playfulness, with contradictory statements and frequent role playing. It was hard at any point to pin down the ‘real’ David Bowie. Bowie didn’t do confessions. Whilst he would allude to previous personal issues in interviews, there was rarely, if ever, a definitive statement for the media to latch on to. Bowie also didn’t do social media, and whilst there are pros and cons to celebrities sharing their views on world events, it was attractive to see a bona fide superstar who didn’t feel the need to constantly remind his / her public of their existance.
Instead we had to be content with the occasional photo of Bowie, usually attending some event, immaculately if casually attired. As a man in his sixties interested in clothes, I found Bowie both an inspiration and an impossible act to follow – you knew that even with unlimited funds you would never be able to match the effortless style.
After a period where Bowie seemed to be keeping an ever lower profile, The Next Day arrived from nowhere, with little preamble and yet creating more impact most major artists achieve with multi million pound campaigns. The music was definitively Bowie, strange, haunting and hard to categorise and yet doing what Bowie has always done, drawing the listener in and guiding her or him to new, unfamiliar but intriguing places. At the tail end of 2015 Blackstar and then Lazarus followed. These were songs I really liked – for the first time in thirty years I was looking forward to buying a new Bowie album, and then I woke up to the news and a small but surpringly important part of my life was no longer there.
Arsene Wenger (arguably another artist who has followed his muse against the dictates of fashion) said “…the message he gave to my generation was very important … and it was basically – be strong enough to be yourself.” David Bowie was his own man – in creating his own path he showed exceptional strength and bravery, and he stands as an inspiration for everyone trying to pay attention to their own still, small guiding voice. In this day and age there seem to be few better epitaphs.
Thank you David – I never knew you, but I’ll miss you.