Bowie: sharp as a knife to the very end


Whenever a particularly special celebrity dies these days, I resist the temptation to rush out with a verdict-cum-tribute. There are two reasons for this: the first and more important one is that my first thoughts are only as valuable as anyone else’s – that is, not very. The second is that I deplore the practice of trying to piggy-back onto ‘news’ in order to get hits: I went through a brief period eight years ago of doing it, and it is nothing lesss than stooping to the quantitative level that seems to be all that matters now….plus, being practical about it, the news junkies who arrive always move on to the next Big Story. They rarely come back.

So then: David Bowie.
He had more genres in his mind than a literary agent, but the label cliché could no more be attached to him than sellotape to a geyser: you see, the point is, he invented the genres.

His albums have that comforting ability to remind me of where I was when they were released, however uncomfortably exciting they felt at the time. And above all – along with The Beatles, Ry Cooder and David Hockney – he was ether one couldn’t lasso: just when you thought you had David Dowie in a file somewhere, he skipped off towards a File with No Name. History is a continuous diffusion of innovation downwards from genius atop the pyramid. The infinitely restless innovator, as soon as the mass media gave one of his existencies a name, he’d moved on to anonymous territories where no performer had previously ventured.

The bloke was woven into my life, and not just because he was a contemporary. He came from Brixton, a special place where I spent seven largely happy years before the complications of career got in the way. My first wife was more disciple than fan: in her eyes, he could do no wrong. His adoption of personalities and fear that he might be mad – ‘a lad insane’ – echoed mine at the time. His chord-progression experiments inspired my own incompetent strumming. As he went from Hunky Dory hippie to Young American, I meandered away from fluffy fancies to sharper observation.

When he strayed into self-indulgence, I felt a compulsion to discern it: I thought the album Low was the most awful trash, and Tin Man the cacophony of an artist in crisis. Some of the most bitter arguments my first wife and I had were about those albums. When he returned to form – that is, defying definition – I wasn’t pleased….I was restored. In failure, he acquired more wisdom than any success can bestow. So did I.

More than any other soul-sharing, however, I was (and am) like him addicted to the concept of space travel, alien life, and learning from the Universe. Major Tom, Life on Mars and Starman remain, if not quintessential Bowie tracks, then certainly a kind of Spock mindmeld for me.

I’m acutely aware of how the foregoing appreciation might appear to be “all about me”. Perhaps it is; but the sense of identification I have with this bewildering artist is all about him. Most celebrities leave me wondering who on earth they really are and what twisted inheritance and experience fashioned their gnarled psyches. I never felt that about Bowie: on the contrary, I felt he was far more courageous, creative and driven than I.

In early 1973, I was at a supper gathering in Putney with an art historian, some Bloomsbury types, two librarians, a senior publishing executive and a lady who was, like me, in advertising. Oddly, I can still recall the main course – a spaghetti carbonara brilliantly cooked – and before the heavy Gattinara wine dumbed the conversation down into The Three Day Week, there was a brief discussion about who, among currently popular musicians, might still be influential half a century later. The debate was brief because everyone came to the same conclusion: David Bowie.

Right/left brain equality is a rare thing, but in his attitude towards himself as a business, he showed himself to be equally innovative and shrewd. If you look at some of the dabbling he did in music-related futures and the alternative models thrown at the industry by digital online media, it is impossible not to be impressed with a truly remarkable mind.

David Bowie left this world as he entered and then entertained it…..with total privacy and tremendous dignity. Of course millions will miss him, but two aspirations have passed with him: first, the celebration of Non-Violent Extremism as a vital contrarian force in a world become robotic; and second, the ability to be pack mainstream and yet loved by that pack for being the ultimate challenger of its fat-headed assumptions. Very few achieve that in any walk of life.

Earlier at The Slog: Creating a generation of media-savvy sleuths

32 thoughts on “Bowie: sharp as a knife to the very end

  1. Very much the “Insiders” rebel, but none the worse for that. IMHO.

    I still think he was more than a little, entertainingly bemused, by his almost uniform in dead & action, fan base of “We’re all individuals”… A Wizard guy, in my personal opinion.


  2. As I am sure you are aware, Bowie’s song writing often involved taking phrases of the moment, throwing up in the air, and seeing what could be made of how they landed. It’s No Game on Scary Monsters is a particularly fine example. Sadly all of the phrases could be from the present rather than 35 years ago.


  3. Personally I never got his music but I did get his visual stuff. He practically launched the New Romantic thing.


  4. Nicely written. So many cringing hagiographies written about extinguished stars.

    Outside of his imagination, I was always struck by the two competing aspects of absolute determination to have a go, and yet nervous for some kind of acceptance. Yet of course, on stage a confident master.
    I think the only reason he never became more than the most enormous cult star (and wouldn’t we all wish for that) was his general shyness when trying to just be himself in the glare of the media lights.

    I hope in years to come, passive fans start to find some of the hundreds of terrific album tracks that he didn’t release as singles. Every album that I bought (up to No.1 Outside) had at least half a dozen unique and stirring songs that could have made “the charts”.

    A great imagination, from our little old island.


  5. “these days, I resist the temptation to rush out with a verdict-cum-tribute. There are two reasons for this: the first and more important one is that my first thoughts are only as valuable as anyone else’s – that is, not very. The second is that I deplore the practice of trying to piggy-back onto ‘news’ in order to get hits: I went through a brief period eight years ago of doing it, and it is nothing lesss than stooping to the quantitative level that seems to be all that matters now….plus, being practical about it, the news junkies who arrive always move on to the next Big Story. ”

    And the third being your verdict-cum-tribute on Jimmy Saville, after your eulogy about meeting him several times, then losing your virginity whilst JS was on the radio DJing, we get: “But was Jimmy Savile a predatory rapist paedophile? I very much doubt it.”. Which perhaps proves the first point you make!


  6. Blimey. I am out of touch!

    Three entertainers have died in the last few weeks, none of whom I knew anything about. There was some guy called Motorhead, then Bowie – whose face, if not his music, I recocognised – and then some luvvie actor this week who Channel4 were all over. But then I am pleased to say that I have never owned a gramophone or a casette player, there is no radio in our house, although I can listen to TMS on the laptop, and there has been no working radio in my car for over 5 years since the dumb mechanic disconnected something installing a new battery and I was darned if I was going to give those thieves at Renault another £35 to get the code!

    Popular culture is something I tend to avoid like the plague. It helps to have lived abraod too.


  7. I have read: that Bowie rented the London Home of Jimmy Paige,
    Jimmy Paige (a Rock drummer) has the house on Loch Ness that was owned by Alastair Crowley amongst other artifacts,
    Bowie songs often mention satanic themes,
    Ergo:Bowie was at the very least extolling his satanic interests.
    My question to all his admirers from Cameron downwards: Do you reallywant to be associated with this sort of man?


  8. Well you have to take your hat off to a person that has both an asteroid and a spider named after ’em.

    ‘Space Oddity’ was the first David Bowie song that really grabbed my attention. I heard it on Top of the Pops over several weeks, whilst growing up above Brixton Market’s great glass canopy in the 70s. It became the mental soundtrack to my space adventure games – we were the only tenants in the building above the bakers in Electric Avenue, so all those empty flats were my playground; none of them were locked.

    It was irritating the explosion of ‘verdict-cum-tribute’ noise (and piggy-backing) upon news of his death. Even as you’re retweeting and sharing what you consider the best of these. But you know, there’s always another way to look at things…

    Kids and empty boxes, eh? ;)


  9. @tewinboy – I never met the man. His mum was a committed Christian – a member of the congregation of my wife’s church and in this you tube clip he is clearly professing his Christian faith…..

    William Blake also wrote about Satan: “And was Jerusalem builded here amongst those dark satanic mills?” The reference to satanic mills isn’t as a lot of folk think factories, but the churches themselves…..


  10. Not wishing to come across as I-told-you-so since many others will have deduced it too, but it seemed obvious to me that the ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ singles/videos were his most biographical and direct lyrics since… Hunky Dory.

    It was all so obvious. I knew after he’d had the heart attack some years back that he would never play live again, and never do interviews again. Not that he was dying. But that he had already ascended to another dimension. It was like he was saying goodbye and hello at the same time. And also producing his best work since Scary Monsters.


  11. Possibly I’m not familiar enough with either Bowie or his music, but I can’t even get through the greatest hits I own without skipping a lot of tracks. Did he really invent new genres – or chase every new fad so that he wouldn’t have to write songs that went beyond novelty value? Like much of the music by the Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin too, I find Bowie’s music curiously soulless, and even sinister. The emotional depth doesn’t seem to be there, which I think is a reflection on the songwriter, who I could never warm to either. I didn’t grow up with Bowie’s so perhaps I’m being unfair, but I’m just not sure what he was as a public figure that deserves non-fans to mourn for him, except that he died of a terrible disease at a fairly young age.


  12. -and perhaps Aleister Crowley-

    I don’t ever recall Bowie dabbling in the Occult. He was an artist and a businessman.


  13. A little OT, but worth a listen if you have a mind to acquire another tool for Deconstruction of Aleister Crowley mythology.

    Robert Anton Wilson gives an open assessment of a man, his history & practice. I promise it feeds the intellect & leaves the soul alone. Well it didn’t make me more evil.

    If you wish the young to recognise depict, you need to see your own. Now that’s my problem. Interesting & provocative John.


  14. What a talent this man was. So versatile, so imaginative, with a theatrical and a musical brain.
    I used to smoke my weed as a teenager listening to ‘Life on Mars’ amongst others.
    A great man, and with such dignity at the end.


  15. I was a fan from the day I bought Ziggy Stardust ( with the advice on the album sleeve to play the record as loud as possible). The boy from Brixton done good.


  16. More than any other soul-sharing, however, I was (and am) like him addicted to the concept of space travel,

    This I find fascinating. Space travel is the ultimate escapism. Here is the real world of space travel. When the Earth and Mars are at their closest positions using current technology it takes nine months to travel there. If you hang around on the surface of Mars for another 18 months you can take the short trip home another nine months. Three years traveling in a “Spacecan” to see what we have already can view daily on our computers.

    I know, I know, things change….. faster “SpaceCans” and all……. but there is nothing out there… we are alone in a vast Universe and if I’m wrong do you think whoever is out there will turn out to be benevolent? Stay in France John you will like it much better I assure you.. .

    Bill “Earthman” Casso


  17. How many personnas does David Beckham have to catch up? The ‘first complete artists’ – mind boggles.

    Still, here’s a message from Bruce Springsteen from Basildon – LET’S DANCE!


  18. Today the sadness just keeps on coming Glenn Frey Has died. Not only was I a great Fan of the Eagles but I was a school classmate of Glenn’s In High School I had my first dance with my first love as a high school junior with him singing the Stones songs with his band ( The Subterraneans) in our high school cafeteria. Peace and Love Glenn and may the Lord bless us all. John B. Dondero High School 1966


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