Something kind of hit me today
Reflections on David Bowie
Planet Earth is blue. Yet only on Saturday it had been Blackstar.
A friend and I had swapped texts, compared notes. In love again, she said. I was giddy with optimism. A new album. A whole new phase maybe. What and where next?
36 hours later and we were 40 year old teenagers, swapping condolences. Headline news had pulled the rug and knocked us sideways.
There were more texts and messages to more friends, more disorientation shared. It was contained, though. I wanted to confide, not share. At the end of Monday I’ve still not read any obituaries. I’ve avoided radio and TV. I’ve not wanted any commentary.
I only wanted to listen. And to think.
I thought, guiltily, about the brief time when I entertained the idea that David Bowie might not be perfect. A sense of doubt. Just for a short while. It wasn’t about the supposed mis-steps — the late 80s, Tin Machine, jungle. I mean, who would dare demand perfection all the time? Who sneers at failed experiments? If art were a science, then it wouldn’t be art.
No, it went deeper than that. I feared there might be a fatal flaw. There was a time, you see, when to be ‘real’ was the highest accolade. Authentic was in, artifice was out. I remember (I think) Tim Burgess saying he preferred Iggy Pop to Bowie because he was more ‘real’. Way cooler. None of that pretentious character stuff. Just feral ramalama. It was a thing, back then.
It was the same in hip-hop, or soul, or punk. ‘Real’ was everything. Fake was bad. A torrid time, and regrettably I succumbed. Eventually, though, I wised up. ‘Real’ is bullshit. Iggy, after all, is middle-class James Osterberg. Most MCs have stage names. Every punk has a concealed past.
Pop is a realm of performance. It thrives on ideas. Without these, pop is dead. Bowie knew this better than anyone. Anyone. And he not only knew it, he made it his life’s work.
This made Lester Bangs suspicious of Bowie. He smelled scenester fakery. Opportunism — another pop sin, if you get found out. But Bowie didn’t even wait to be found out. He laid it on show for all to see. He held the mask up even as he hid behind it. Bangs had come round a bit by Station To Station — the mask was close to being removed. But still the question lingered for a while — does he care, really?
It was a powerful thought at the time. One that kept me away from Young Americans for far too long. Put off by plastic. It wasn’t helped by where it led. In my mind it was Ziggy –> punk, YA –> soul boys and Spandau. I knew who my money was on.
But the doubt passed. I was converted, with delayed zeal, to Young Americans. It helped me realised that the masks were everything, of course. They are still. Without the masks the music wouldn’t exist. They provided a vehicle for years of restless, relentless creativity. Anyone who does creative work knows this to be true: that lots of the time you just need a really good way to get out of the way. Ever stuck? Try out a persona. They let you express an idea differently.
The masks took that truth to its limits. The ideas in his songs were about performance, and his performance of them brimmed with ideas. He was the most pop popstar ever. Even though, of course, he was really an artist.
For Bowie’s is an artist’s energy. He brought himself entirely to the form, and he did it over and over and over again. A state of constant exploration — always trying, doing, asking. This is why the masks are important. They helped to engineer and sustain inspiration. I’m willing to guess the news has talked about Bowie as ‘most influential’ something or other. It’s irrelevant. Influence indicates some sort of cultural significance, but mostly has little to do with the artist. I’d like to see ‘most influential’ replaced with ‘most inspired’ — he worked hard to create things no one had ever done before. Even his period of writer’s block produced Low, his most innovative work.
Bowie’s world is one where inspiration outweighs influence. A world where creative work is its own reward. A world we would do well to live in more often — one where showing up and daring to think differently can confer megastardom.
Because the masks also helped to create the appeal. They’re part of the reason the grief is universal. We all have a Bowie in our mind. He might wear a dress or a black leather jacket or a lightning flash or a yellow suit. He might sing Lady Grinning Soul or Golden Years or Win, or Let’s Dance or Fashion or Jean Genie.
Or, perhaps, Heroes. The sound, as Caitlin Moran memorably said, of humanity applauding itself. The song of the Olympics — the last time before today that I cried because of Bowie.
He was loved because he gave people more versions of himself to love. He covered more ground, moved more quickly. The masks soaked up ideas and spewed them out in newly inspiring ways. There was a time when he could catalyse anything into pop: Genet and Burroughs and Brel, Kabuki and Kraftwerk and Crowley. No one should be able to inject that much avant-garde into the mainstream and end up loved by so many.
But he did. And here’s why. The masks are about us, too.
And it was cold and it rained, so I felt like an actor. Does that sound like your 11th January too? Did you say it felt surreal? Or weird? This is what we do when mediated reality hits us squarely between the eyes. When we crash a car. When our children are born. When someone we love dies. When the world is about to end. At times like these we stand outside of ourselves. We feel like actors in our own movie. We look to the script, and tune into the TV or radio to hear what others are saying. Because we never thought we’d need so many people.
Bowie understood this. He was watching you watching him watching you watching yourselves. He was so good that the opening song of Ziggy Stardust described how we would all behave when he died. (Mind you, Changes, the song used to describe his shapeshifting career, was recorded well before most of the shapeshifting even took place.)
He knew our constantly mediated world made ‘reality’ and its blurry cousins the most important subjects for a serious artist. They are hard to pull apart, and collide in his songs all the time: the candidate, proud of his fake film set; the girl with the mousy hair watching a film I’ve written ten times before; Andy Warhol, silver screen, can’t tell them apart at all.
We’re all hooked to the screen now. We need it: with nothing to read we have nothing to say. The screen is a stage for our own masks, too. It’s how we present ourselves. Our selves. We perform every day, without thinking. We all live in Bowie’s world now.
He doesn’t anymore, of course. He’s gone, upwards perhaps, though he was always watching over us from a great height. He saw planet earth was blue. He was a starman waiting in the sky. Above us all, overseeing humanity, ready to fall to earth. Somehow managing to touch everyone, but making everyone feel he was theirs alone. Allowing us to be us, just for one day.
For many the idea of him dying was, until this morning, impossible. I said as much to my son before school. That he’d seemed somehow immortal. Like Zeus? he asked.
Exactly, I said. Like Zeus.
We play Bowie a lot in our house. The children like Jean Genie, Rebel Rebel, Oh You Pretty Things. They always make us happy. But my daughter could tell I was sad this morning. We’d explained why and she hugged me. As we held hands walking down the stairs to breakfast she said, but we’ll still be able to play his songs won’t we?
Bless her. She’s 4. She’d confused the real person with their recorded persona.
What a very Bowie thing to do.