In the second instalment of our tribute to Bowie where we track the evolution of his career through the memories and thoughts of artists, writers and musicians, we look at the years in which Bowie developed into an auteur, bringing together musicians, styles and influences to create some of the most influential albums in the history of popular music, from the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans, through the Berlin trilogy to the megastardom of the Let’s Dance album.
M.A. Oliver-Semenov (poet & author)
A lot has been said this past week about Bowie’s integrity, genius and the sadness of his recent passing; and most of the articles I’ve read were written in such an elegant fashion that I feel I would be committing a massive injustice if I were to attempt to express my own grief. Not only that but the pain of his untimely death is simply too near.
As a self-confessed Bowiephile I have of course been asked many times whether I have a favourite album. My answer hasn’t changed for twenty years: Young Americans. This surprises a lot of people who expect me to have chosen one of the more popular albums from apparently cooler periods. Other Bowiephiles I know tend to overlook this record. They recognise it was made in the middle of Bowie’s most prolific period but view it as a bit of an oddity. It doesn’t fit into one of the character periods he had – he was neither Ziggy Stardust nor the Thin White Duke. This was the in-between album, the transitional stage where I believe Bowie, for a brief moment, was simply being himself.
Young Americans was the ultimate act of artistic bravery and cleansed Bowie of Ziggy, which he had had obvious difficulty in shaking off – just look at the cover of Diamond Dogs. Having achieved stardom as Ziggy Stardust, the rock-n-roll icon of the early seventies, what could have been more daring than to risk it all by fucking off to the ‘States, as Carlos Alomar put it ‘the whitest man’ he’d ‘ever seen – translucent white’, and making a soul album; the man formerly known as Ziggy Stardust, the whitest, most English guy on Earth, making soul music.
This week I’ve seen Bowie described as the ‘king of reinvention’ more times than I can count. Well, what greater, more audacious transition has there ever been than Ziggy Stardust the gender-bending-alien-rock-god becoming a super-smooth soul singer? Not only that but the album is fucking tremendous. As a club DJ and no stranger to Bowie himself, my father knew a lot about soul music. It’s the music I was raised on. However, when I played the Young Americans album in full to him about ten years ago, he was shocked to learn it was Bowie. Like a lot of British people my dad got stuck on the Ziggy years and foolishly let Bowie’s soul album pass him by. A lot of people did. It’s one of the most underrated albums not only in Bowie’s career but in musical history, and I think if anyone really wants to celebrate Bowie, what could be better than checking out that one album made back smack in the middle of his best years, when Bowie was… David Bowie.
Jon Langford (artist & musician, The Mekons)
In 1979 David Bowie did his top 20 for the BBC and included The Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’. He compared us to T Rex and said he hoped we were getting lots of gigs. He was already my hero; from hearing ‘Starman’ on the beach in Cornwall to the Berlin albums with Eno we hung on his every word and costume change. 25 years later he did his top 20 again are we were still in it! I never met him, just listened to his music and marveled at his trajectories… ‘Where Are We Now?’ from his last album is as good as anything he ever did so I refuse to accept he is gone cos really he isn’t.
James Poke (composer & producer)
There was a very moving letter published in The Guardian on Wednesday (written by Andrew Lines of Manchester), describing his personal Bowie and what that person meant to him. Much has been made over the years of Bowie’s chameleon-like quality in changing stylistic skins (even if under the surface there was considerable consistency – many songs might easily be redressed in the style of a different part of his career). But Bowie wasn’t just a stylistic shape-shifter, he was somebody who seemed to mould his identity to each individual listener, and hence meant so many different things to different people.
Having been asked to identify a favourite track or tracks as part of this contribution, I find myself, of course, drawn to those songs which have a special extra-musical identity and emotion for me for various reasons – ‘Stay’ from Station to Station, or ‘I’m Deranged’ from Outside, or a number of more obvious tracks, all of which have a specific meaning to me.
This quality perhaps explains the close and personal relationship so many people had with his songs, and the enormous outpouring of love for his music, enough, apparently, to put 14 of his albums into next week’s album charts in the UK. But it maybe also explains why Bowie seemed so unknowable and so other-worldly – almost like there was no real personality available, at least not in public – the real personality was kept private – and the Bowie that we know and love is a different one and different to each of us, almost an artificial creation, just like Ziggy Stardust.
Steph Power (writer, critic & composer)
Fifty years ago, following the death of Edgar Varèse, Pierre Boulez wrote in tribute to the great man:
‘You have the deliberate wildness of the animal that does not go with the herd, the rarity of the diamond in a unique mount … Your legend is deeply rooted in our era; we can scrub the chalk (and water) circle of those magic or ambiguous words “experimental”, “precursor”, “pioneer”…’
These words might equally apply to Boulez himself and, especially, to David Bowie; both are recently deceased titans of contemporary culture about whom I’m currently finding it hard to think without turning my mind to the other – however unlikely that may sound, given their differences. Boulez’ death (5 January) had already prompted reflection on my own musical life, since my first amazement at the sensuous, distilled beauty of Le marteau sans maître as a teenaged guitarist-composer. In those days I was blithely unaware of any musical ‘rules’, and didn’t understand that high modernism and other kinds of high fuck-off-ism represented by, say, punk rock, were not supposed to mix. So I’ve felt a contradictory sadness, too, at both the fact and passing of Boulez’ controversial era: that angry, damaged but brilliant generation of postwar avant-garde composers, who so exquisitely yet tyrannically held ‘new music’ hostage, and of whom Boulez was just about the last representative (happily, Betsy Jolas, for one, is still with us).
But, at age 90, and with his ill-health well known if unpublicised, Boulez’ death was hardly a shock. How different was Bowie’s, coming completely out of the blue, and just two days after the release of Blackstar on January 8, his 69th birthday. The album and accompanying videos seemed to me a return to superbly enigmatic, melancholy form. Boulez may have been a thrilling discovery as a young musician, but I grew up with Bowie. Until the Berlin years, and especially “Heroes” – I was twelve when it came out in ’77 – it wasn’t so much his music that grabbed me as his sheer, unapologetic otherness. Bowie’s eyes reminded me of my mother’s following surgery for a detached retina. Except that his felt curiously less alien than hers, regardless of his sci-fi personas, and seemed to suggest infinitely greater understanding of my own burgeoning, ambivalent sexuality.
Listening to ‘Lazarus’ on Blackstar, I’m reminded of the ironic spirit of “Heroes” – and especially the fractured soundscapes of that album’s non-vocal trilogy: ‘Sense of Doubt’, ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neuköln’. These were imbued with what I imagined to be the defiant but flat-feeling decadence of West Berlin during the Cold War – and they seemed to articulate a kind of hollow yearning within my psyche, just as Boulez would later, for a while, offer a jewelled respite from anguish.
Bowie showed us that identity can be what you make it. That the binary opposites we fall into so unthinkingly – of high-low, popular-serious (culture), male-female (gender), left-right (politics), young-old (age) – are really only products of existential terror denied. As Boulez pushed uncompromising extremes of the senses and synapses, Bowie danced through them as shape-shifter extraordinaire; always and never at home in his unique, ‘unbearable lightness of being’. That he could share that with so many so profoundly – through music, art, theatre, film, fashion, and now his own death – makes him a phenomenon I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of again.
For a loving account of the cutting of “Heroes” go to Sound on Sound http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct04/articles/classictracks.htm
Paul Burston (novelist & author)
When I was 15, David Bowie saved my life. It wasn’t easy growing up gay in South Wales in the ’70s and early ’80s. There were very few role models. Anti gay bullying was rife. I know I wasn’t the only gay teenager of the time who entertained thoughts of suicide.
And then I discovered Bowie. ‘You’re not alone!’ he sang on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. For a generation of alienated outsiders, these words offered hope. So did the fact that he boasted that he was gay, or bisexual – despite being married with a young son. And who can forget ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, with its suggestive lyrics (‘other boys check you out’) and outrageous video, in which Bowie plays both the male and female roles.
Bowie wasn’t the first rock star to flirt with sexual ambiguity. His idol Little Richard was camping it up years earlier. But Bowie was the first to do it so explicitly, and with such style. When you’re a teenager, these things matter.
In 2007 I published a novel called Lovers and Losers, about a couple of Bowie fans called Tony and Katrina, who grow up in South Wales in the ’70s and become pop stars in the ’80s. Tony was largely based on my teenage self, though unlike him I didn’t follow my idol into the music industry. I never played guitar or made it ‘all worthwhile as a rock and roll star’.
But I did have the privilege of meeting him. It was in 2002, at the afterparty for his performance at London’s Meltdown music festival. I’d been knocking back the free champagne and behaved like a starstruck adolescent, rushing up to him and thanking him for saving my life. He must have been used to this sort of thing, because he smiled knowingly and humoured me for a few moments. As people gathered round, I finally managed to ask a sensible question, at which point he visibly relaxed and gave me another minute of his time. As a journalist, I’ve met a lot of famous people. Few have what he had. Call it charisma or ‘just the power to charm’, Bowie had it in spades. He made you feel like you were the only person in the room.
I’m still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he’s no longer here. It seems impossible, somehow. The man who killed off Ziggy Stardust and was reincarnated as a succession of equally other-worldly alter egos – surely he was supposed to have been immortal? ‘Here I am, not quite dying,’ he sang on ‘The Next Day’, released in 2013. But then on his 69th birthday came his last album, Blackstar, and, three days later, the announcement that he had died of cancer.
Of course he saw it coming. The album is full of references to his own mortality. On the single, ‘Lazarus’, he’s ‘in heaven’ singing, ‘I’ll be free, just like that blue bird. I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me?’ The accompanying video shows the singer writhing on his deathbed, scribbling words onto a piece of paper or climbing backwards into a wardrobe, like a vampire returning to his coffin. It’s the freakiest show – sad, disturbing and playful, all at the same time.
David Bowie couldn’t save his own life. But he made his death into one last work of art. How very like him.
Gray Taylor (writer & musician)
When I wrote my review of David Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar, last week little did I know that I, as a fan, was part of one the most audacious statements the creative world has ever known. I couldn’t work out some of the messages, the lyrics, the themes of death and the afterlife seemed more pronounced than usual and it unnerved me. It transpired that the content of Blackstar was, in fact, a goodbye to us, the faithful, and a final artful puzzle for us to work out. The video to ‘Lazarus’, his final brilliant single, was released four days before his death. Lazarus, the Biblical figure to whom the song alludes, returned to life four days after his death. The album was released three days before his death, and on a Friday, which was unusual in itself. Could it be that David Bowie, the ultimate living work of art, had managed to control death itself to orchestrate a work of art out of his own death? One song, ‘Girl Loves Me’, was replete with Anthony Burgess’ language of nadsat from A Clockwork Orange, a film that inspired the look of the Spiders From Mars. But, the line that perplexed me was ‘Where the fuck did Monday go?’ David Bowie died on a Sunday.
It seems now that David Bowie’s whole life was leading up to this amazing finale to a singular career. The outpouring of emotion the world felt on January the 10th was very real and will be felt for a long time to come. The feeling that the world had lost a unique person was overwhelming. Bowie changed the world in an art form that usually only changes the trousers people wear (of course he did that too) and the colour of teenagers’ hair (of course he did that as well). He was defined as a chameleon, but this does him a great disservice, for Bowie never hid amongst a crowd and, for the majority of his career, led us all from the front. I witnessed the power of his charisma in 1989, from the stalls of the Newport Centre, when he was trying to blend in amongst the boys in the band of Tin Machine. But, it was clear from even where I was sitting and to my eleven year-old eyes that on stage was a unique force, an outstanding performer, a one of a kind singer; a mega star, and no amount of clattering, session-men rock could hide this.
I first fell in love with David Bowie when I was barely old enough to speak. My mother and I used to watch Top Of The Pops together on a Thursday evening. I would dance around the room at the age of two, entertaining my mother and my grandparents. I remember a video starting, a strange looking video of a clown, accompanied by ghosts, being followed by a digger. The tune beguiled me, it was an unusual sound and seemed to be a nursery rhyme, like the ones I had been taught. It fascinated me. It seems unlikely to many, I’m sure, that a two year-old should be so bewitched by an artist of seemingly such a highbrow, adult plane, but this story is true. It is testament to how David Bowie could captivate any mind, any age. He could write the catchiest pop tune with the deepest lyric (see ‘Modern Love’), and he brought intellectualism of sound and vision to the world of rock.
For this writer, he is the absolute perfect artist and the grief I feel is absolutely real. I have lived with David Bowie in my life for as long as anyone I know apart from my parents and grandparents. He has informed my thinking, my life, and my future, as I know he has for many others, and for that I am eternally grateful. Thank you Sailor, safe journey amongst the stars, how lucky we were to have you among us. Love on ya!
Artwork by Dean Lewis
Click HERE for the next section of our Bowie tribute, The Lazarus Years: 1986-2016
Click HERE for the previous section, The Songman Years: 1966-74