A friend rang me yesterday and said: “Have you heard? Bowie has died.”
I had only just come off Facebook and there had been no mention. How could he have passed? He looked in apparent rude good health and had only a few days ago released his new album, his twenty-seventh studio collection, Blackstar. All appeared good in BowieWorld.
I prayed his death was a cruel social media hoax, so I jumped back on. The entire wall was Bowie, top to bottom, as long as I scrolled. The news had just come out… and it filled the world.
Such is the universality of David Bowie and his music. One of those rare, rare artists – I can only think of the Beatles as the other – who could truly be all things to all people, wherever they were in their lives.
Bowie came into my life just in time to save me from Trinity Grammar School.
I had not been aware, nor did I care of his earlier incarnations as the Mod rocker, David Jones; as the opaque folkie of Hunky Dory or the proto-glammer of The Man Who Sold The World (all of which I would come to love). I was only dimly aware of his chart hit “Space Oddity”, which at the time looked to be his first and last stab at fame.
For Christmas I had been given The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and it turned my world around 360 degrees. Each school day I would come home and disappear into my bedroom, where David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust would take me away into his mirror-maze universe, making the grey strictures and eon-long boredom of school fade far, far, away.
His universe – slightly dystopian, endlessly new – was rich in imagery and characters, all told in a poetry that I could not always fathom and yet spoke directly and strongly to me. What it said was that I could be me, and Bowie gave me permission to be so. If he, with his orange fright-wig hair, girlish moves, androgynous clothes and wonky eyes could take on the world, then I certainly could take anything Trinity Grammar School could level at me.
And it took some time to introduce this strange new music into our boys-school circle – we were all Status Quo, Led Zep and Free fans: hairy hetero denim rockers to a man. It was now lyrics such as “Inspirations have I none / just to touch the flaming dove”. And as for our parents: to them David Bowie was a queer Pied Piper who threatened to take us away to Gay Glam Land and keep us there (he could have with one wink). He really messed with their minds.
To we ‘70s kids; Bowie was ours – he was neither of our parent’s post-war culture that threatened to suffocate us, nor of the counter-culture, the hippie movement of older brothers and cousins that was passing. He was entirely new and entirely ours.
The irony is of course that he was not entirely new; far from it. David Bowie’s genius lay in his remarkable artistic ability to sift and riffle through the Twentieth Century and fashion the Pop Culture odds’n’ends he found there into shiny new shapes that dazzled, and still do. These exquisitely cracked mirrors also served as a lens through which we could make some sense of the cultural shit-storm that made the century so dizzying.
Like Andy Warhol – the subject of one of his finest songs – he seemed one of the very, very, few “modern” artists who truly grokked (Google it) the times he lived through.
Bowie – like Miles Davis, like the Beatles – leaped so far forward with every release and dragged so many in his wake, his influence is still being analysed and considered today. This influence is obvious, and immense. Would contemporary rock and pop sound the same without Bowie? Would Punk have so quickly ditched the yobbos for the art students and forked out into indie, New Wave, post-Punk and all their sizzling tributaries without the possibilities he revealed and hinted at?
His latest album (and its videos) was created in the knowledge he was dying – it is littered with messages and farewells to us all. Even in the terrifying knowledge time was slipping away, he still performed.
If that is not an artist whose life is inextricable from his art, I can’t imagine what is. But that is what he has always been.
Bowie came into my life just in time to save me from Trinity Grammar School, and over the years, through the challenge, vision and plain ecstasy of his music, he has saved me over and over again.