In our final section of our David Bowie tribute, in which we track his career through the memories and musings of artists, writers and musicians, we look at the last 30 years of his career, still filled with superior albums, collaborations, live performances, a new generation of fans, his superb comeback album, The Next Day, after his ten year hiatus just two years ago, and, of course, his spellbinding ‘farewell’ album, released just a few days before his death, Blackstar.
Jasper Rees (author & critic)
I’ve been listening to David Bowie more or less constantly since Monday morning while ingesting tributes which all talk of his direct line of communication to millions of individuals. One lyric jumped out: ‘In the age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams.’ That’s from ‘Word on a Wing’ on Station to Station. It’s a beautiful, lush (in the non-Welsh sense) song in which Bowie searches for a higher being after the gruelling experience of shooting The Man Who Fell to Earth. It wouldn’t have been his intention but the words seem to mulch down to an absolute essence what everyone has been trying to say about Bowie: that he was a shimmering deity whose coming a whole generation didn’t know they had been waiting for until, like a flirty Pied Piper, he pointed that index finger at them on Top of the Pops. The ‘Starman’ moment makes all sorts of sense, but it should be said that not everyone has an ‘only he understood me’ narrative to share. Bowie had a sinful allure for secure, non-androgynes from the shires too. You didn’t have to be waiting for an enabling messiah to be intoxicated by his genius.
I saw him live four times, and every time it got better: of how many rockers can you say that? The first was the Glass Spider tour at Wembley Stadium in 1987, also dubbed by one wag the White Elephant tour, there being way too much clutter and detail, the centre not holding even remotely. Then came Tin Machine at the Town & Country in 1989, Bowie introducing the band and afterwards himself with the single word ‘Jones’. It was mainly memorable for the sidestage wind fans supplying a set-long blowdry for the lead singer. Then the Sound and Vision tour in 1990 at Docklands Arena, the knockout setlist voted for by the fans (no ‘Laughing Gnome’ despite a groundswell of gremlin voters). There was a long wait for Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002, when he played the whole of Low and the whole of Heathen. A god.
Hayley Long (novelist)
The David Bowie I grew up with wasn’t a red-headed alien who was changing teenagers’ lives en masse; instead he was a definite grownup who wore slick suits, had bright yellow hair and was forever present on the far reaches of my teenage pop consciousness. In fact, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Bowie’s existence. ‘Space Oddity’ was as familiar to me as Pinky and Perky and The Wombles, Bowie’s image was omnipresent in the windows of Andy’s Records and CMV (Colin’s Music and Vinyl) and my fortnightly Smash Hits magazine had elevated Bowie to a dame. The latter was a gesture that seemed to me to be both respectful and baffling all at once. But unlike Sir Clifford of Richard or Paul ‘Mega-Wacky-Thumbs-Aloft’ McCartney, the playful name-calling did nothing to diminish this particular pop star’s mystique. To my teenage self, ‘Dame’ David Bowie was a conundrum: Old but cool. Glam but modern. Gay but straight. Weird but also unquestionably good. And when, during our monthly school discos, he invited me and my fellow teens to ‘put on our red shoes and dance the blues’, we all obligingly trotted on to the gym hall floor in our assorted tucker boots and no-brand trainers and swayed together in a collective huddle of awkwardness until the record finished. Because, like so much about Bowie, that tune proved to be an anomaly. It doesn’t actually encourage much dancing. But back then we tried anyway. Because there was an unspoken understanding that the sound blaring from the disco speakers was very very cool.
In much the same period, I remember sitting in my bedroom and playing ‘Absolute Beginners’ on repeat. Or rather I was engaging in the eighties ritual of PLAY – STOP – REWIND – TRY TO FIND THE START OF THE SONG – PLAY. And it didn’t even bother me that the man who was singing was almost the same age as my mum and dad. Because Bowie showed me that age is meaningless. And he was every bit as young and as modern and as relevant as Lloyd Cole and Prince. He was even as current and as edgy as Stephen ‘Tea-towel’ Duffy. Maybe even more so. And although, in all the time that has passed between then and now, I never once thought of myself as an actual ‘Bowie fan’, I guess I always was one. Because I have loved Lloyd Cole and Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy and Kate Bush and Talking Heads and REM and The Cure and Adam Ant and Morrissey and Bjork and PJ Harvey and so many more artists who owe so much to Dame David Bowie. Never mind ‘Life on Mars’, Bowie’s life on earth was extraordinary.
Zoe Ranson (writer & actor)
I grew up in a town at the end of the world where the cliffs were slowly, but definitely, eroding into the sea. Population 5,000, there were eyes everywhere. If you strayed even a pantone from the established acceptable uniform it marked you out for merciless taunting, and if you were outlandish beyond that, it could prove fatal. The train line was a single track, the last departure at 8pm, so there was no escape for a teenage girl who saw things a bit differently. I was doomed.
I didn’t ever feel ordinary. As a young teenager my travelling was all vicarious through music and the personalities who burst from the songs that spoke to me. David Bowie was the stardust in a recipe already laden with goodness (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols and music of my own era: Suede, PJ Harvey, the Manics). I embraced every part of his aesthetic because it seemed to me nothing else could be as vital as what he represented; fashion, theatrics, storytelling – especially Ziggy and Aladdin Sane – the sparkles, the spray paint and platform boots; the crazy cat teeth.
I’m no longer hell-bent on the notion I had then – that I could only fall in love with someone if they loved Bowie as much as I did – but I know it was because of Bowie I escaped and found my people – the greatest friends I could ever make. People who were bold and clever and unapologetic, who thrived on fancy dress and rock’n’roll, curated words and style.
When I first moved to London I had a poster – a Mick Rock portrait. Sitting at an odd angle in a room painted scarlet, Bowie appears as mercurial mad hatter, an elbow propped on a framed picture of himself (the cover of Hunky Dory), hair flaming red, boots red too, but shinier than everything else. It was so big (intended for advertising at Tube stations) it entirely covered one wall of my rented room, and was ripped at the corners where I’d struggled to get it home. That poster got damaged over many moves, and now I have a smaller version of it in the space where I usually write. I look at it every day and it still fills me with strange fascination. His music, his versatility and his lightness gave me courage; my own freedom of movement and expression, spurred by the catalyst of his spirit. The strength to recognize it’s okay not to be ordinary was the most practical magic I could have ever been taught.
I met David Bowie in 1999 when I worked at Virgin Megastore (now half demolished, half dystopian nightmare, Primark). Radiant and gregarious, I’d not yet been fazed by any of the Pop People appearing in store, from Sisquo to B*witched, but this was one time in my life I was truly lost for words. It was a struggle, when he asked me how I spelled Zoë, not to blurt out ‘Z-o-w-i-e’. I treasured the dedication on my Dad’s original gatefold copy of Diamond Dogs, and I will treasure his myriad gifts of Sound and Vision always.
Thank you David Bowie, you made our days.
Gary Raymond (novelist & critic)
I saw David Bowie live on what has become his final tour, in 2003. There was the moment when he broke in to ‘Sister Midnight’ that things began to fall into place; the magnitude of the occasion. Sure, I was watching the guy who created Ziggy, who created the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, a hero of mine, a legend, the artist who transcended cool; but with his version of the song he co-wrote with Iggy Pop for Pop’s The Idiot album (which he produced in 1976), the truth that Bowie was everywhere hit me. I’d known this before, but not known it. ‘Sister Midnight’ seemed to stand for something at that moment, it stood for Bowie’s omnipresence.
Bowie’s significance is that he has felt omnipresent, and yet has almost always acted outside of the mainstream. In the aftermath of his death the mainstream media have tentatively tried to dress him up as a national treasure, but they don’t really get him – they never have done. Apart from about 20 minutes in the eighties with EMI’s hand on his shoulder (or his hand in their pocket), he was always a cult figure. There are some thumping big hits, of course, and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ are stonking great gifts to people who only touch the surfaces of the phenomenon that is pop music. But for those of us who, on news of his death, went immediately, tearfully, to ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, or ‘Wild is the Wind’, or the ‘Sweet Thing’ medley, or ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, or a thousand other tracks that form the seemingly unending coves and alleys of Bowie’s back catalogue, we have lost so much more than great songs.
Some people on social media, reaching for a phrase to capture their feeling of loss, likened Bowie’s death to losing a family member. But that’s not quite what they mean – it is a profound loss, and it is deeply personal and close, but also it is shared by more than a few friends and blood relatives: millions around the world are mourning with us. We are not alone. It is the loss of losing a leader, the loss of the figure who stood tall and showed us a way. Bowie was righteous, he was wise, and he was cool as fuck. He was a leader of a rebellion for countless kids who looked to music for answers.
For all of Bowie’s ‘phases’ there was one thing that remained constant – his hunger for rebellious individuality. These days and weeks after his death, we should all put down our tools and play his records, watch his interviews, read his story, because we will not see his like again, and we shouldn’t miss the chance to gather our memories and form a monument within ourselves. We will never have the opportunity again, and the generations to come will envy us the opportunity we did have.
Robert Minhinnick (novelist & poet)
The novel, Limestone Man I published with Seren in 2015 is filled with musical references. This is why in performance the musician Peter Morgan, who accompanies the readers, quotes Philip Glass, The Easybeats, John Coltrane, Nick Drake and others.
The book features a main character, Richard Parry, brought up with modern music and mindful of his own inability to play any musical instrument.
Parry finds himself in the small Australian town of Goolwa. A real place. His idea is to create ‘some sort of scene’ there, based around music. Halfway through writing Limestone Man, I discovered that David Bowie had made a video of ‘Let’s Dance’ in the Australian settlement of Carinda. A real place.
I use this fact in the novel. Thus the imaginary Richard Parry remarks:
‘Bowie in Carinda was unthinkable. But since the unthinkable had already happened, it couldn’t happen again. And yes, I suppose I felt a bit peeved. Wasn’t Bowie famous enough?’
Although none of David Bowie’s music is referenced in the novel, Richard Parry owes a great deal to the ‘real’ Bowie for his idea of creating a ‘scene’.
This week, I’ve been struck by the last film I’ve seen featuring Bowie, publicizing the album Blackstar. This is Bowie manipulating, and satirising his own death. Surely this is the inevitable step for such an artist. In the film what seems to be Bowie’s own deathbed holds a frightened pensioner, gripping the sheets. Because artists must use what they’ve been given. Bowie’s last awards are cancer and fear and he is compelled to do something with them. To make them work.
For me, this final Bowie is only too familiar. For the last three years I’ve been visiting my mother in a succession of hospitals and care homes. The locked wards and lounges are filled with people who resemble the final incarnation of David Bowie. Even medication for psychosis, for dementia, for physical pain cannot conceal what these people are feeling. It’s terror. And in my experience only miraculous morphine (yes, it is addictive) soothes this ultimate dread.
In the film David Bowie reminds us (because we should already understand) that our deaths are performances. Bowie, acting on a deathbed and within a wardrobe, is participating in another of life’s unending pantomimes.
Yet today’s newspapers are filled with headlines that Bowie has denied his public the last pantomime of all: a public funeral. Recently I helped choreograph my uncle’s funeral, using Ernest Dowson and Shirley Bassey. The word ‘gay’ was spurned but ‘love’ was stressed. Maybe it was David Bowie who helped make that pantomime possible.
Paul Carr (Reader in Popular Music Analysis at USW. Author)
David Bowie’s birth date of January 8th has always had resonance for me. He shares this with both his hero Elvis Presley and my late father in law, so through my adult years it was a date I always remembered. January 8th 2016 however was to be different – this marked the release Bowie’s new album Blackstar – this was special – distinct – anticipated. Although work commitments resulted in me not being able to listen to the album during the first couple of days after its release, the Bowie headlines that dominated both mainstream press and social media took a while to resonate on the morning of January 11th.
After initially being convinced my Facebook feed was simply congratulating the great man on his latest artistic achievement – the reality slowly began to hit home. David Bowie was dead! Throughout the day, I listened to Blackstar several times, trying to make sense of Bowie’s death as I went about my daily duties. Being one of the pre-teen generation who witnessed first-hand Bowie’s iconic Top of the Pops performance of ‘Starman’ on July 6th 1972 , my first response was one of emotion. This was a guy who had always been around. He was a signifier of my youth and I felt like I had lost part of it. More significantly, I remembered Bowie the artist. Ziggy Stardust remains the only album I have purchased three times – on both vinyl and CD. I was also reminded of the fact that Bowie was beginning to populate academia and the establishment. The Kingston University professor attempting to understand Bowie’s creative impulses by dressing like him for a year and The Victoria and Albert Museum Bowie archive came to mind. Closer to home, Bowie’s biographer, Paul Trynka was in the process of enrolling to do a PhD under my supervision – investigating Bowie’s complex personae. Having recently read Paul’s fabulous book, Starman (2012), Bowie was close to my heart on January 11th.
Reflecting on Bowie’s legacy, it was his complex persona that intrigued me most all those years ago when watching him and Mick Ronson cwtch up on Top of the Pops. Who was this guy? What was he singing about (Starman?)? What was his sexuality? What sort of music was this? These were all early indications of the enigma that Bowie instigated and has continued to perpetrate ever since. He simply appeared to have no reference points that many of us could make sense of! In my adult years, although I have been able to make sense of some of this, I have continued to be fascinated by the contradictions he portrayed in areas such as his private/public life, high art vs. commercialism and fiction vs. reality. Famous for his multiple personas and constant reinventions of himself, he was always and will remain to be top of my list when encouraging students to consider authorship in popular song. Song’s such as ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ are obviously sung by someone very distinct from David Jones, the post-war Brixton boy born on 8th January 1947. Additionally, Bowie’s music has always had the capacity to allow enough space to facilitate the listener to inhabit his music. In my own case, this was not achieved via what could be described as the ‘possessed protagonist’, where a listener becomes the character in a song due the ways in which it resonates with their own life. Instead, my perspective on Bowie’s music tended to be as an ‘interested observer’, where I watched with interest from a distance how the esoteric characters and stories in his music progressed.
Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka suggested that Bowie has to be considered one of the first mainstream popular music artists who realised that the development of a persona sets the necessary conditions for an artist to create their art. If we think of the first stage of authentic originality in art to be an unforeseen occurrence (not anticipated – but retrospectively possible), I would argue that Bowie appearance on Top of the Pops in was also unforeseeable (not anticipated – but NOT possible). He really did appear to come from nowhere – it was not possible to predict his emergence.
Bowie has to be considered a true innovator who genuinely redefined the stylistic boundaries of popular music. One of the few artists who deserves to be remembered as a genius. When I heard that Bowie’s latest album was to feature musicians such as guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Mark Guiliana, musicians I had been listening to for a long time, I was particularly looking forward to this album. The music is at times dark and uncompromising, mixing the improvisation and harmonic tendencies of jazz with fantastic grooves and catchy melodic lines. Arguably the most dramatic piece on the album is the song ‘Lazarus’. Opening with the lines ‘Look up here, I’m in Heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen’, the song is performed on what looks like Bowie’s deathbed in the official video. Looking very frail, the outcome is a tragically beautiful piece of performance art, resulting in an overt and extraordinarily profound goodbye. Like his emergence into mainstream popular music in June 1972, his farewell was also unforeseeable. David Bowie, we will miss you.
Artwork by Dean Lewis
Click HERE for the previous section of our Bowie tribute, The Thin White Years, 1975-85