And Ziggy played guitar!
And the world was never the same again. Well… not the popular cultural world, anyway. That world I grew up in… beginning with the twelve year old me interacting with a white plastic and blue “leather” transistor radio, emoting with the fantasies created by a singer who pushed himself out of the norm. I even remember requesting “Life on Mars” on the BBC World Service Pop Club a couple of years later (and got the badge to prove it).
It’s been a year since his death, but I’ve been struggling to answer a very simple question. Why did the death of David Bowie affect me so much? I’ve asked myself that over and over again, and up to a bit ago had no solid answer. I mean, I liked his work, sure… one hell of a lot, but I was prog while he was glam. My friend Joe used to rave about his work. I was luke warm. Loved some of it to bits, was left quite cold by others. But a few years later it grew on me. In my late twenties, when I started being a lot more discerning about the music that affected me, Bowie crept under my skin and, true to the chameleon that he was, fit into every nook and cranny of my existence.
I’ve just finished watching the excellent documentary shown for the first time a few days ago on BBC 2, “David Bowie – the last five years”… an in-depth look at what made him go back to music, and his frenetic rush to the all-too-sad finishing post, creating feverishly every step of the way. And the question I’d been asking started answering itself.
It’s all in the art. Bowie wasn’t pop. He wasn’t even rock. He was an artist. Full stop. Yes, an artist whose prime matter was rock (and at times even pop), but he lived life manifesting an intelligent passion into crafted artworks that we bought, back then, on vinyl, and which we can even now play over and over and still be thrilled.
It’s a thrill that permeats the being. An intrinsic feeling of oneness with the artist and his many personas. But how the hell can one emote with a fictional alien guitarist with a red and blue lightning bolt on his face? Obviously, we could, and still do. Those early riffs play at the back of our heads even when they’re not being listened to. That introduction to Ziggy Stardust is as memorable to my generation as the first few notes of Beethoven’s fifth are to those whose music is richer in tradition. Up there with Blackmore’s base in Smoke, and Page’s solo on Stairway. Yet, more raucous… less virtuous, but nonetheless a digger… deep into the very heart and soul of a young man who’s mind was often beset by struggles with existential angst.
Bowie was a showman. He was an actor and a writer. He was a musician and a philosopher. He understood the times he lived in and indelibly ingrained them in his productions. From the recurring Major Tom, lost in a dream of space, to suffragete city and drive-ins. He rocked the house with howling diamond dogs, and cried from sorrow, while postulating the significance of fame and of being a hero (just for one day).
And he changed. Every time. He moved from one persona to another, shifting his music to the tempo of the era and the generation, his image projecting him into the lives of one more group of music lovers for whom he provided a sound track for growing up.
His assertion that fame was a means to achieving artistic ends… a facilitator, rather than as a means in itself, as it is for so many who have very little to contribute to culture, says a lot about the man.
He is a lazarus, as his last great feat in music will have us believe… but he’s that in all but one very essential trait. Lazarus died to rise again. Bowie never died. His poetry and song still live and are a continuous manifestation of his artistic greatness. The sadness lies in that there will be no more of those. That this is all we’ve got.
In which case we are indeed lucky that what we’ve got is brilliant.