This was the week in which one of the most influential musicians of his era, David Bowie, died from cancer at the age of 69. Following a heart attack in 2014, Bowie had more or less disappeared from live performance and touring. In recent years there were rumours that he was suffering from lung cancer. The rumours of cancer were true, but he actually died of liver cancer.
Bowie, who was born in Brixton, London, in 1947, and was raised in Bromley under the name of David Jones, was living in New York and died mere days after his 69th birthday and the release on that day of his final album Blackstar. Interestingly, this album was the only one which did not feature his image on the cover. Perhaps this was a fitting and symbolic way to end his performance.
We cannot, of course, be certain that Bowie planned to end his public life so neatly, but the words “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go” is evidence of an artistic life formed with no lack of wit, if not ambiguity. Bowie’s last recorded lyrics, it seems, are “I can’t give everything away”. There is no doubt that David Bowie will leave a legacy.
In 2013, his first new song in a decade, Where are we now? posed that question to all his devotees. That seems to have been a constant theme running though his music and personal identity since he burst on the pop music scene towards the end of the swinging sixties.
I first got to know the music of David Bowie when I was the warden of a youth centre in the East End of London in the early 1970s. By then, the singer had already transcended the conventional in his notions of identity in pop and rock music and had finally broken through in 1972 with the hit Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy turned out to be Bowie’s alter-ego.
David Bowie was a cultural figure who, in the words of one admirer, took the cultural conventions of the day and “hyper-blasted them into orbit, creating an explosion of myriad shapes and possibilities.” He gave others, including the devotees who attended my church-sponsored youth centre, and many others after them, “the permission to explore ‘other selfs’; alternate versions of themselves, not constrained by social norms.”
Even from as far away as Australia, tributes have been flowing in for David Bowie. One of these very succinctly and appropriately summarized the singer’s influence on popular music: “Rather than perform as an ‘authentic self’, David Bowie, through a number of concocted personas and striking performance ambits and gestures, explored the outer reaches of personal identity: male, female, weirdly normal, drug-f….d, spaceman, alien. In terms of Western popular culture this was revolutionary.” Tributes don’t come better than this.
Another tribute from the United States, however, considered that David Bowie “changed the world forever.” This grandiose, if not sublime, claim is hardly substantiated by the evidence.
Bowie was basically a pop performer (in an interview for television he once said that he was not a rock-n-roll singer, he was “a performer of popular music”). That was the source of his celebrity. He was not a politician, a priest, or some intrepid global explorer or anthropologist. The words and music of his songs could be seen as self-statements, confessions even; words and music which described and summed-up his philosophy of life.
David Bowie was a 20th century music existentialist. He expressed his philosophy of life through his music; he took responsibility for the decisions he made with his life and the various identities he brought to it. David Bowie was provocative, poetic, pre- and post-punk, creative and compelling. He was a 20th century man who explored and experimented with musical sounds and visions. He was different and, in consequence, “his sounds and mannerisms were co-opted and imitated by both the worthy artists and the poseurs of the 1980s.”
But, did he “change the world forever”. This is hardly likely and the claim applies no more to Bowie than it does to other iconic figures from the world of popular, music e.g., Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Roy Orbison and Michael Jackson, to name but a few from the same era as Bowie. With these, David Bowie now passes into the annals of late 20th century music history.
David Bowie was not just a musician. He was an accomplished artist and actor. He was an alien from a dying planet in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, the British prisoner of war, Major Jack Celliers, in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. He declined to play the villain Max Zorin in the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill.
His political interests were interesting. Early in his career he expressed an attraction for nationalism and fascism; attractions he would later deny. In 2000 he declined the royal honour of the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and turned down a knighthood in 2003. Bowie later stated: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for”.
Though “not quite an athiest”, Bowie considered that “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always.” In a 2005 interview for Esquire magazine “What I’ve Learned”, he stated “I’m in awe of the universe, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s an intelligence or agent behind it. I do have a passion for the visual in religious rituals, even though they may be completely empty and bereft of substance. The incense is powerful and provocative, whether Buddhist or Catholic.” His interest in Buddhism began in 1967, but very early on he was told by his Tibetan Buddhist teacher “You don’t want to be a Buddhist. You should follow music.”
As this article is being written, I am listening to Bowie’s Platinum Collection – the Best of Bowie. This triple album covers Bowie’s output from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Though choice is difficult, my personal favourites include Space Oddity, Sound and Vision, Heroes, Sorrow, Life on Mars and the Under Pressure duo he did with “Queen’s” Freddie Mercury. But, such was the quality and quantity of Bowie’s output, the list could be extended.
To those who enjoyed his music, David Bowie showed us that there are other possibilities. We are not stuck with a “given mindset, a singular process, a known destination, a predetermined sexuality, a linear destiny. Life is way more mysterious, replete with resonances, echoes and unexplored expanses.” These possibilities still exist.
A few years ago Bowie released the track Where Are We Now? One critic described this song as “a meditation on cloudy memory and dimming consciousness. For an artist who kept the personal at a distance he hits a peak moment of elemental emotional purity as the song closes: As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain / As long as there’s fire / As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you.”
David Bowie is dead. He’s gone. He has passed into the memories of those who enjoyed, perhaps even had their lives changed by, his contribution to music. But the above words pose the question: where are we now?