“Ashes to ashes,
funk to funky”
On Monday last week artist, musician and legendary spaceboy David Bowie was announced dead. My ceiling collapsed.
A fortnight later I’m still processing what it all meant. They were just pop songs and I never met the man, but a world without Bowie just feels entirely alien.
I’m not much given to pilgrimage but I read that he brought wife Iman and daughter Lexi back home to check out his old haunts shortly after his cancer had been diagnosed as terminal. That brought tears. We did the same with my dad as he entered his final stretch (though a pie and mash in Walworth and a pub crawl around Bermondsey probably weren’t on Bowie’s bucket list…).
Anyhow he grew up locally and I needed answers so a brisk ten-minute walk and there I was, stood outside a 1930s terraced house on the outskirts of South London, teenage Bowie’s Bromley base of operations…
Of course, there was nothing much to see, and I felt a little stupid standing there stalking departed suburban Buddhas. There were flowers attached to the railings at the front of the house. I pondered how weird that must be for the residents, especially if they’re not fans. It all felt incredibly pointless, my sense of loss deepened and I was glad I hadn’t travelled over to his birthplace in Brixton.
To soothe myself I walked, and sank my thoughts into suburban anonymity…
Bowie’s true lies
Suburbia is a place to hide, but it’s also a place to cook up, and David Bowie did a hell of a lot of that. He’s been called a chameleon because of the ‘shape shifting’ but chameleons try to blend in. Bowie never blended in. But by the same token he never fully emerged. He left clues and reference points as to the inner workings of the real David Jones but the ‘revealing’ always left you wanting more.
Throughout his career Mr Jones used identity as a canvas; Ziggy, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, David Bowie… possibly prompted by a family history of schizophrenia… or maybe he just enjoyed dressing up.
Whatever—he was the original pop transgressor, not because he wore lip-gloss and consumed vast quantities of cocaine—they all did that—but because he definitively exposed the fakery of it all.
“So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse of
How the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test”
He epitomised what the best British talent brings to American rock ’n’ roll rebellion… The ironic feint.
That’s not to say it was all just rock ’n’ roll satire. That wouldn’t have washed. Like a tribute act with no original, irony without a point eats its own tail and unlike many ‘rock gods’ Bowie never descended into self-parody because he’d already mastered the language. Well versed in Nietzsche and Warhol, Bowie knew all about masks and our need for healing self-deceptions. There’s empowerment in that knowledge, and in the hands of a popular magician, enchantment for the rest of us.
Bowie told ‘true lies’. He wore his fakery on his sleeve not just for the fun of it all but for the art of it all. He self-examined like the best existentialist and delivered on his findings like the best Vaudevillian, replete with Anthony Newley voice-over.
If the Beatles represented the peak of ‘pop modernism’ Bowie lifted us into a ‘post-pop’ stratosphere without us even noticing, influencing untold numbers along the way.
And he never stopped pushing and pulling.
Bowie once railed against the excluding and self-indulgent ‘art-speak’ of a certain creative elite. He was a working class lad at heart and his antidote to that form of cultural snobbery was the humble pop song. You can take the songs as you find them, they’re nice tunes, but if you go hunting for meaning be warned, it might hurt a little, the ‘crashing’ normally does. His themes of isolation, dystopia, difference and despair were sometimes hard to hear but wrapped up in charming melodies he delivered stardust on the ear like the most comforting ‘light entertainer’.
Creatively he trod a path between the sulky vulnerability of a Hamlet (“To be or not to be…”) and the majestic and mannered deftness of a Prospero (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”), and I hate to say this, but his death feels timely; not because his time is over but because it is only just truly beginning.
Re-evaluation will inevitably follow his passing and his prescience can’t be ignored. I believe Bowie will garner a deeper relevance as, prompted by technical innovation and increased worldwide connectivity, questions of identity, difference and creativity come to the fore.
He was light years ahead of the curve acting out gender fluidity before it was even vaguely a thing and jumping creative boundaries with a single Nietzschean leap. Writer, singer, painter, actor, social commentator… He was a one-man cultural revolution and unlike the typically earth-bound rock star encased in a single oeuvre, he foresaw and embraced change as a part of his purpose and process like no one before or since.
There’s life on Mars
As far back as 1999 he had this to say about the state of music and the industry:
“I embrace the idea there’s a new demystification process going on between the artist and the audience. […] When we look back at this decade there hasn’t really been one single entity, artist or group that have personified or become the brand name for the 90s […] in the 70s there were still definite artists […] now it’s sub-groups and genres; there’s hip-hop, there’s girl power… it’s a communal kind of thing… it’s about the community, it’s becoming more and more about the audience, because the point of having somebody who ‘lead the forces’ has disappeared because the vocabulary of rock is too well known, it’s a currency that is not devoid of meaning anymore but it’s certainly only a conveyor of information, it’s not a conveyor of rebellion… And the internet has taken on that […] I’d like to see what the new construction is between artist and audience. […] It’s almost like the artist is to accompany the audience and what the audience is doing, and that feeling is very much permeating music, and permeating the internet […]
Is there life on Mars..? Yes it’s just landed here.”
He added in 2002:
“The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years and nothing is going to be able to stop it. […] Music is going to be like running water or electricity.”
We no longer have to travel to Mars, because borderless Mars travelled to us.
Whether you feel Bowie helped pull down the barriers or merely documented their collapse doesn’t really matter the question is: will you take the baton? Change is hurting the old order and disrupting the established ways of doing things but it’s also providing opportunity for those willing to explore the new territory.
We all have our own ‘Bowie’ or ‘Cobain’ or ‘Elvis’ but the days of ‘creativity by proxy’ are coming to an end. We’re entering an era where personal expression in all its forms will receive a new respect, and fuelled by web technologies, greater and wider means of distribution. Now’s the time to look within, explore your own inner and outer ‘borders’ and become the Martian you always were.
Step up to the mic. Do it now, you don’t know how long you’ve got.
There’s something distinctly British about Bowie, distinctly ‘London’, but like all great art and artists his legacy goes beyond arbitrary lines on maps and reaches into very personal inner landscapes. Introducing his 2002 TV appearance Live By Request Bowie teasingly said:
“The question I wanna ask is ‘who do I want you to be?’”
And so he went on his way.
We’re left with the already critically acclaimed Blackstar. Exposed, vulnerable yet skillfully theatrical, Bowie remained the Cracked Actor right to the end. Even on his deathbed he sprays riddles into our ears and eyes like some mischievous laughing gnome high on the mystery of it all. There’s no attempt at conclusion and no request for clemency. The story just goes on because it’s our story now and I love him for that.
The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time