Last Monday I turned on 6 music to hear Lauren Laverne discussing Bowie in the past tense and I immediately realised the man had died. From the moment of the announcement, the station’s schedules were cleared to commemorate the man and to invite listeners to share their shock and grief. Later that night, Marc Riley, a football loving Manchurian who had met his hero struggled to get through his show, so grief stricken was he.
I have never been a fan, though occasionally I have enjoyed his music and films. So for a week I have been trying to understand this incredible sense of grief and loss. There are already proposals for memorials to him, including the ultimate – the fourth plinth on Trafalgar Square, the restoration of the bandstand in Beckenham where he helped run the first free festival, and of course in his birthplace of Brixton.
He featured on the cover of the i newspaper, and they ran a 16 page feature on the many sides of this complex artist. This is a small paper that largely rejects features on celebs and royalty. So his death was beyond the usual run of the famous.
It occurs to me that part of this outpouring is a generational thing – those who were touched by his songs as teens are now in the higher echelons of the media, so calling the shots. Radio 1’s Sarah Cox was criticised for not making the announcement on air – she was oblivious of it, and had no idea how to deal with it. But it was more than that. He appeared when Britain was having a dark time, and he brought light and hope to what became known as ‘the lost generation’, held back by urban decay and youth unemployment. Andy Gill wrote in the i “he was the outsider’s outsider; the original avenging nerd, the five-stone weakling who fought back against t sand-kicking bullies and proved himself far braver than the burly rock’n’roll mainstream.”
I was stunned more by the response than his death per se. No, I am intrigued, fascinated. He was remembered around the world, even the Vatican press were on board. I kept thinking about Mary Magdalenes’ song in JC Superstar, ‘I don’t Know How to Love him’ and the line, “he’s a man, he’s just a man”. Yes, but he was clearly so much more than that.
Between 1967-2016 he made 27 albums, some greater than others, but an impressive record. To some, his variability lessened his genus, but I think it added to it. Greatness comes from experiment, from learning. He covered pretty much every genre excluding punk, but he revived Iggy Pop’s career. He did Gershwin for an aids charity album. He had his ‘Anthony Newley’ phase with what is largely considered a stinker of a song, ‘The Laughing Gnome’, but it was of its time. He did songs of incredible bleakness, madness and murder. ’You Little Wonder’ is drum & Bass. Life on Mars was inspired by ‘My Way which he had been asked to do the English lyrics for before Paul Anka’s version was used by Sinatra. Rick Wakeman played keyboards on it and said it was a delight to play, so many surprises in it, so Bowie was a great composer as well. Star Man echoed Garland’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, and was a song of hope, of happy endings.
He studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, which gave him a lightness and grace of movement unlike other musicians. He did drugs – lots of them, but he realised he was in trouble so decided to clean himself up… by going to Berlin – then the crack capitol of Europe – with the famous druggy Iggy pop and revived both of their careers. Sometimes stupid is the best path.
His sense of humour was infectious. David Lister remembered an interview with him describing his new, experimental album. when asked if it would have any tunes, he replied “I doubt it.” On his 50th birthday, he was played a recording of his hero Scott Walker wishing him a happy birthday. He could not speak for some time, so choked up was he. He hosted the launch of William Boyd’s conning of the art world in his book about the abstract artist Nat Tate who never existed.
There were plenty of examples of the man’s kindness and humanity, of sending Christmas cards to former band members and journalists, his willingness to help artists and when 6music was being threatened with closure, someone with a lot of money paid for billboards in London in protest. Many believe it was him.
Last year’s V&A show of his clothes proved to be the most successful in its history. HIs constantly changing persona was reflected in his clothes and he supported and encouraged many designers. Whilst this may not be of interest to many of us, this is one of Britain’s most important exports, so, together with his music, he encouraged British industry, which is something politicians should remember when they cut back arts and education budgets.
What is often overlooked was his acting career; he did the Elephant Man on Broadway, a role now deemed as one of the big ones for actors. His film career began with, aptly, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth”, which he claimed he was so high on drugs he doesn’t remember, but he turned up and did the job. He was in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, a King Goblin in The Labyrinth , A vampire in The Hunger, Pilate in Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, Nicola Tessla in The Prestige, Warhol in ‘Basquiat’ and starred in Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Baal’. Director Stephen Wooley claimed “Bowie’s charisma and presence is so powerful that it has to be the centre of the piece… He dominates films and so you can’t cast him as a character actor. He almost demands centre stage.”
His music formed the soundtrack to films ranging from horror to comedy,cartoons and tv.
Bowies’ former lover and the co-founder of the Beckenham Arts Lab back in the late 60s claims he had a lifelong interest in Tibetan buddhism, so believed that there was something beyond death.
So, an amazing, unique life. But niggling a the back of all this is the historian’s sense of his death. We all fear death. To me, it is not the end, but the slow decay leading to it the loss of control, the loss of what we are that seems the most frightening. St Barbara was patron of a good death, and I am intrigued by the medieval notion of neighbours praying for the person’s soul to have a short time in purgatory before going on to heaven. This notion was an important means of binding communities together, as well as being part of their faith. So much of Bowie’s life has become ritual – the outpourings of grief I heard on the radio were a means of sharing communal pain at his loss, and as such, the media played an important role, and journalists and DJs were thanked for they fine work in enabling this.
Bowie knew for 18 months that he was dying. Unlike most of us, he had plenty of time to prepare himself and his loved ones for the terrible event. I have read of several cancer sufferers who call this a blessing. He also had money to die on his own terms. If you listen to his last album, you do not hear the voice of an old or a dying man, and this I find amazing. His long-time producer Tony Visconti says he has another 5 songs and had no idea how close to the end David was. So he was still doing what he loved and doing it well, right up to the end, and I find this perhaps the most inspiring part of his life. He died as he lived.
He spent his life experimenting, reinventing himself. He was asked why he kept changing, he said because he was bored. Or rather, he was constantly curious, and that fills me with admiration, because curiosity is such a rare and precious thing these days. But I think the final point comes from the special put together on 6music by Matt Everett in which he said that Bowie’s penultimate album had been a return to his Berlin years, when he had come off drugs and I suppose found an alternative in his own head. The final album, which will forever be scoured for hidden meanings, or warnings, Everett described as the first album where Bowie sounded like himself. It seems to me, this is the heart of the story. The man spent his life in search of … of something even he probably didn’t know. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne talked about music being part of identity, of what we are, and that is especially so with Bowie. Maybe he was, like most of us, searching for some purpose in life, only he seems to have found it, at the end, within himself.
When Ray Bradbury died, a copy of the Martian Times was circulated, headlined that he was moving into a flat with Elvis on Mars. Maybe that’s where Bowie is now, and I’m sure the three of them could be having fine old time. But there is something in me that thinks he is too restless for a flat share, even on Mars. And of course he has left a family that were with him during his final time on earth. I can’t see how he would want to be far from them.
There is probably no other person who is in so many hearts and minds, so he will be here with us for a long time. But there is also the lesson from Arthur C Clarke’s 2001, whereby when humanity had reached a certain level, they went on to the next one. I somehow think Bowie, may be the first human to go boldly where no one ever has gone before. I have no idea where that is, but I hope he’s happy there.
A lot of people want him to rest in peace. I think that’s the last thing he would want. He was- is? – an eternally restless spirit.