Space Oddity was a fitting name for David Bowie’s first hit; for almost his entire existence in the public eye that was precisely what he appeared to be. Mercurial, ethereal, ingenious, and always deeply, deeply cool. Perhaps it was this aura of other-worldliness which made the news of his passing all the more shocking. How could an entity such as this be affected by such a deeply human defect? It seemed impossible.
Yet it was true. And slowly the tributes flowed in from almost everybody. From musicians to comedians to politicians to fans, his importance and his influence was clear to see. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack; all the personas he had created and cultivated and allowed us into were celebrated in their own rights, and while many so often disputed what his ‘finest’ period was, for once all his fans became united as simply that: fans.
His genius has been lauded by many, never more densely than as the news broke on Monday, though it is not only his musical talent that was extraordinary. This was a man who had pre-empted so much of popular culture, not only in music but also in fashion and art. He was friends with Andy Warhol, with Lou Reed, with Iggy Pop; that period of life in New York fifty years ago one of the greatest concentrations of artistic creativity we have ever known, akin to Paris in the nineteenth century. To say he had his finger on the pulse of pop culture would be understatement; in his seminal years of the early seventies he was pop culture, and even later he continued to inform it, if not as pervasively as in his initial shot to stardom after the release of Ziggy Stardust.[pullquote] The man who had remained one step ahead of us throughout his entire life managed it one last time. [/pullquote]
His predilection, even obsession, to change and innovation kept him not only refreshing, but consistently enigmatic and fascinating. He dabbled in soul with 1975’s Young Americans, with funk and disco in the Nile Rodgers produced Let’s Dance (Rodgers called him the ‘Picasso of pop’), and the avant-garde of Low, Heroes and Lodger. There was even a brief foray into Drum and Bass in 1997’s Earthling. His ability to take the best of a genre and distort it through that unique abstract lens was his finest trait, alongside his ability to startle and amaze whilst performing. Self-admittedly not the most comfortable in front of an audience, much preferring the creative bustle of the studio, it seems remarkable that it is some of his performances, not least that appearance on Top of the Pops which outraged the old and enthralled the young as he first shot to androgynous pre-eminence, have gone down in folklore. Yet remarkable was what he did best.
As he grew older he became more elusive and retreated somewhat from public life, only serving to increase his mystery, choosing to live comfortably in his New York home while still, unbeknownst to us, continuing to create at a rate only a mind such as his could sustain. For many years we did not hear anything new from Bowie until the release of The Next Day in 2013 ten years after his previous album of new material. The shock and awe surrounding the release was testament to his endurance, to the brilliance of the man almost everybody has heard of. It seemed that he was back to his vibrant, viciously prolific best. Rumours of fresh material continued to circulate, yet did not seem to come to fruition. Perhaps he had simply settled back into his hibernation, and who could blame him?
And then Monday came. The man who had disappeared from the frontal lobe of popular culture until that moment just under three years ago had only recently come back to the world’s lips with the release of Blackstar on his sixty-ninth and final birthday on January 8th of this year. Initially described as ‘cryptic’ by critics, its lyrics and mood now became heart-achingly clear cut. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’. This was his goodbye. For eighteen months he had known of the illness which would kill him, yet he continued to record, to produce, to interact with his collaborators and to keep us in the dark which now seems so much better than the bleak and stark light we have in front of us now. The man who had remained one step ahead of us throughout his entire life managed it one last time.
In public life he was affable and ever able to lend a soundbite to an interview even when he did not mean to, no doubt in part due to his effortless lyricism, and they were always delivered with the touch of self depreciation and tongue lodged firmly in his slim cheeks which made him so intriguing. A wry smile flashing across his thin lips accompanied many a comment, not least “I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir”, and the wonderful retort to an interviewer noting that he was not wearing his ‘girl’s dress’, simply firing the reply “Oh dear. You must understand that it’s not a woman’s. It’s a man’s dress.”
Yet in spite of the sharpness of his wit he never seemed any less humble, and it was this intoxicating cocktail of the bizarre and the ethereal, mixed with the humanity of the Brixton born man who was sat in front of us which made him shine even brighter than the stars from which he at first seemed to come. He has now become the Starman which he sung of way back in 1972, and we will be forever better for his presence. You can almost hear his voice echoing towards us from whatever planet he is on now, reminding us of his influence, of the emotion and joy he brought to countless amongst us, telling us why he decided to move on:
“I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone”
In Memory of David Bowie, born David Robert Jones: 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016.