Yes, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Call this sudden unexpected return our ‘The Next Day’, a tribute to a man without whom Pop Lifer would never have existed.
Kate Bush. The Smiths. Madonna. The Sex Pistols. Blondie. Depeche Mode. The Weekend. The Human League. Prince. Pet Shop Boys. Wu-Tang Clan. Suede. Eurythmics. Siouxsie & The Banshees. Nine Inch Nails. Goldfrapp. Eminem. Nirvana. Pulp. Lady Gaga. Lana Del Rey. What do all of these acts have in common, other than their brilliance? It’s impossible to imagine them existing if David Bowie, that nuclear bomb in the form of a pop singer, hadn’t detonated in the early seventies and blown open the whole idea of what pop stars could do, of what pop could be.
For the next few days the universe will belong to Bowie again, just as it did during his imperial period in the seventies. Newspapers will print vast obituaries and double page photo tributes, television news will pump out snippets of his biggest hits, blogs like this will paint the internet purple with prose and Facebook and Twitter will be flooded with testaments to his genius and his personal impact on almost everyone who has ever cared about music. And the thing is, it still won’t be enough, still won’t do justice to what this extraordinary uber-human achieved. Despite what some polls have said, he probably isn’t the most influential pop star of all time – Chuck Berry or Little Richard or John Lennon or some other rock pioneer probably deserve that title – but as far as Pop Lifer is concerned, he’s by far the most interesting.
If you want to imagine a world where Bowie never existed, imagine one where the only songs you ever heard were by Sam Smith and Adele. And if that feels a little bit too close to our actual world for comfort, then that just shows how badly we need another Bowie. But as the impossible news begins to sink in – that the star man, the man who fell to earth, who so many of us seem to have thought might actually be immortal, is gone – so too does the fear that there can never be another like him.
There’s a line in a song by the sadly forgotten Britpop also-rans Subcircus where the singer dreamily moans “there’s a hole in the sky where Bowie dripped through”, and that’s how he always felt, like an otherworldly genius who squeezed his way into this planet from another dimension. The justly celebrated Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2013 hammered home that he was an even more extraordinary visual artist than most had realised, with the most interesting and eclectic magpie mind in all pop.
But for all of our strange fascination in his chameleonic shapeshifting, if that was all he had done, he’d be forgotten by now, with a thousand other performance artists. What really made him matter, what it really comes down to, is the songs, those amazing, indelible and impossibly varied songs. Speaking personally, they are entangled in my life for as long as I can remember, from dancing to “Starman” in my aunt’s living room at age 6 to my teenage swoons to “Suffragette City” to my obsessive replaying of “Life On Mars?” in my stormy twenties to the ecstasy of dancing to “Young Americans” in London’s glorious Duckie nightclub in my 30s.
He is the first person I have never met who has died and who I feel I will miss for the rest of my life.
George Harrison described being a Beatle as a trauma. As he got older, he rather sank into himself and sought to overcome this trauma with meditation and a country pad the size of a modest county. Harrison was the reluctant Beatle, a man for whom fame was unwelcome, recognition inconvenient and the idea of being ‘George’ a baffling concept he never wished to wrestle with, let alone accept.
David Bowie, on the other hand.
Bowie didn’t wrestle with the idea of fame, the idea of persona, he took it to bed and had all sorts of roundabout sideways fun with it. He took the gaps between perception, persona and his creativity and carved a unique space where he could demand our attention and control its response. How David Jones, the man felt about his fame is something that is difficult to guess, though his seventies retreat behind a glaze of drugs, as well as the lyrics to the song “Fame” itself, suggest it could be as poisonous for him as other superstars, and yet – even in his darkest years – he always found ways to play with it, to use it. And so it was through his various personas and projects in the 70s, the oddly lurching eighties which he seemed to enjoy more than some of his fans, the intrigues of the nineties and then finally silent in plain sight in New York. Bowie was always able to craft and curate his own image and output like the Wizard behind the curtain, only he wore the red shoes.
When I heard the hollow hideous past tense being applied to David Bowie this morning, my usual Monday fog cleared immediately, sadness burning it out. As I made breakfast, I let my children know that Bowie had died. They responded with a Flight of the Conchords Bowie impression and hummed out a few of his big hits over their Weetabix. Honestly, I’m not referencing this to make my kids look like mini hipsters but it prompted the line of thought I’m trying to articulate now. Everyone has a Bowie voice, many artists have Bowie references, many pop stars are effectively a Bowie reboot.
However, David Bowie was the best David Bowie out there. By a country fucking bisexual mile.
In being the best Bowie, he managed to perform a remarkable feat – David Bowie won. He beat fame – he conquered this hysterical, hypocritical, ugly beast. In his later, sober years he was utterly in control of his environment, practicing a poise, grace and good humour that was as extraordinary as it was unique. Has anyone held such talent, such fame, such adoration so comfortably? While David Jones remained clear headed, determined, private, loving and loved, David Bowie overwhelmed us with his talent but was never overwhelmed by what he got back from us – our respect, our attention and our love.
And why such love? It wasn’t because he looked as good in a suit as a dress – though that helped without question. No, it’s fairly simple. It was the songs. Always the songs. Such songs.
Thank you, David, for the gift of sound and vision.