So, I know I’ve posted a few things about Bowie since his death (specifically about the 39th anniversary of the release of Low last week), but I’ve mainly been keeping my powder dry, ‘cos I knew all I’d be saying is how great he was (is), and how much I was (am) affected by his passing – which is exactly what everyone else is saying too.
But now I’ve actually thought of something original to say, or at any rate something individual to me. The thing is, I never really realised how influenced I was by him, until he died, and then I started thinking about how influenced I was by him. More than that, thinking about his music, and ultimately how much I loved it.
And I think the reason I took this love and influence for granted is that in the popular consciousness, or in my consciousness at least, Bowie lacks the gravitas associated with other singer/songwriters of comparable status, e.g. Dylan, Cohen, Townshend, Lennon, Reed, Cale, Young, Mitchell, Simon, etc. Aside from the fact that he’s slightly younger than those other luminaries, it’s all that dressing up and prancing around and pretending to be someone else, isn’t it, that predisposes us towards taking him less seriously? He was much more of a ‘mere’ ‘pop’ star than the others were (Lennon at the beginning of his career excepted). I mean, unlike them, he’d already been a Mod, and been a hippie, and also unlike them, he was on Top Of The Pops at the height of glam rock, at the same time as Slade and Sweet and Mud and Gary Glitter, and behaving in the same outlandish fashion: how could we know he was going to be any different from those early peers, and have more longevity?
It was the overt theatricality that made him seem more of a media figure and less of an artist (of course, that distinction has blurred somewhat over the years since, and partly as a result of DB’s own collapsing of the difference). Watching his riveting 1999 interview with Jeremy Paxman on YouTube, I found it very interesting that he said the reason for all the different adopted personae was that he had never felt comfortable being on stage as himself. Furthermore, he said that by the start of the ’80s, he felt all the guises were getting in the way of his writing and performing, and so he decided to just ‘be himself’. (Of course, ‘David Bowie’ is another construct as well.) This, arguably, invites the corollary that his creativity only began to flounder when he stopped acting a part (on stage, not in films).
But the point I’m working towards trying to make is that Bowie must have realised, early in his career, be it consciously or unconsciously, that doing rock’n’roll in the traditional way would have been inauthentic for him, and so he embraced his own lack of authenticity. This is an idea and modus operandi that can be traced back at least as far as Wilde and Yeats: give a man mask and he’ll tell you the truth. We are all acting, some of us realise it and some of us don’t. But, and here’s the rub, over time the inauthentic becomes its own form of authenticity, because it’s authentic for him, and authentically him.
Maybe we also didn’t take him as seriously, and value him as much, as those others, because of his mischievousness, his playfulness, his sense of humour. Not that those others mentioned weren’t/aren’t possessed of same, but Bowie’s was always more in your face, less subtle, sometimes making you think he didn’t give a shit. How wrong we were.
Among all the post mortem commentary and obituaries, the adjective that keeps cropping up the most to describe and encapsulate him is his ‘fearlessness’. But I would add another: his generosity. Nowhere was this more apparent and exemplified than in his discoveries. Like Björk, when Bowie collaborated with someone it was almost always to bring someone from relative obscurity to wider public attention – unlike Madonna, for example, who only works with someone who is already hip or happening, thus latching on to the latest craze, the freshest talent, after the fact. Of course, it benefitted him too, but he knew where to look, and used his high media profile to further the careers of others. The list is endless: Mick Ronson, Eno, Fripp, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Donny McCaslin. It took a great deal of prescient perspicacity to know how good the first Velvet Underground album was in 1967, to realise that Lou Reed was, to quote from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon in 1972, ‘one of the best songwriters around’, and to produce Transformer; or to know there was something very special gong on with the Stooges’ first two albums, and to mix Raw Power, set up a management deal and recoding contract for Iggy and The Stooges, to say nothing of going on to co-write and co-produce Iggy’s The Idiot and Lust For Life, and even tour for a while in Iggy’s backing band as a keyboard player. All when Lou and Iggy were being ignored or dismissed or derided by the industry and the general public. Indeed, my favourite epitaph that I’ve read so far was that from Iggy Pop: ‘His friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best of what we can be.’
A gentleman. A scholar. A writer. A total performer. An incisive social commentator. But all done with the lightest of touches. He even made fear and isolation and alienation seem like they might be fun, or not as bad as you thought, or much worse than you thought – but with the hope of the possibility that you might survive them because, after all, he knew all about them, and he had. Genius. Yes, because it takes a particular kind of genius to be serious but not take yourself too seriously, to be serious but not be taken too seriously. That’s when the fun begins. And it’s only just beginning. The hard work of taking him seriously, I mean. What fun it’s going to be. Watch that man.