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.