I feel the spirit of the 20th century just died. Or, at least, the part of it that was the Western world in recovery, able to breathe and discover itself now the darkest of times was behind it. Celebration and change and fragility all at once. The euphoric songs were always brittle too. The descents into darkness always wove in musical ascents out of it.
He was easier to mock than almost any other pop star, but he always it saw it coming long before we did and moved on to something new. Every decade scorns the aesthetic of the one preceding it. Bowie didn’t just get out of dodge before everyone else – he left a sign showing where to go next. Then had moved on again by the time we got there. Always cool, but unlike a hundred thousand musicians who followed him, he’d never have labelled himself as such.
Everyone does a Bowie impersonation, but no-one can do Bowie. Even the best impersonators can only do one Bowie-voice. Llisten to albums and the voices are legion, completely unpredictable from song to song and even verse to verse; spiking between pantomime dame nasality, faux operatic boom, cracked shrieking, TV preacher smoothness, London-rough and a dozen other Bowies; always effortless, always as though done in one take, the heat of the moment.
I arrived late to the party, unaware how far he’d moved on already. For years Bowie to me was just the guy who sung that silly astronaut tune and had his cock and balls on show in Labyrinth. When I finally listened, when the lurid dustclouds of Britpop had settled, my tasted had refined a little, and music became something I sought out for myself rather than blindly consumed, there was an immediate sense of something sliding into place. Oh, of course.
This was what I’d been looking for from a string of bad pop-rock bands who thought contrived archness or clumsy abstraction was the same thing as wisdom, or who did not understand that earnestness only worked if stripped to very bone, just to the stark sentiment and not the purple elaboration thereof. I quickly cut those bands from my life and rebuilt my musical taste from the ground up. Bowie is the bedrock.
Cryptic without being pompous. Experimental without ever forgetting the power of a chorus. Emotionally honest through implication rather than overt statement. Riddles that dance rather than frustrate.
The fact of his transgression and his subversion, the license he gave the world to be whatever we wanted be, was never why I loved him, although I always understood why it was so powerful and so essential to what pop is now. I am a quiet and shy man, and though I have some regrets at having led a very conventional life, drawing any attention to myself in either clothes or behaviour feels almost unbearable. But the message worked on me even if I didn’t wish to be like him. For me, Bowie was simply life-force. A walking celebration, an effortless engine of intelligent joy. Musically as much as aesthetically; even in his unhappiest songs, there are notes of hope. Oh no love, you’re not alone.
The persona kept changing, the instruments kept changing, but there was always Bowieness, and Bowieness, underneath the cut-up lyrics, the electronic experimentation, the improbable hair, the obviousness with which he knew more than anyone else ever would, was always hope. Even in the follies of the 80s and the dullness of the 90s, there was Bowieness. Master of the escalating note at just the right time, master of the exploding crescendo, master of weaving reassurance into the blackest introspection, the bleakest judgements.
Look to Quicksand; the drowning man lifted out by the lilting melody. Look to Station to Station; self-loathing malevolence which builds and builds into excitement. Look to Rock’n’Roll Suicide; the doom after the end of the party exploding into redemptive companionship. Look to Where Are We Now; tired old bones ascending heavenwards. Even when lost in smack, even when assassinating his own identity, even singing about fear, alienation and death, Bowie is always there for you.
Bowie was always there for you.
I will never shed tears for any other public figure like I shed tears for Bowie. The spirit of the 20th century is dead. But look at the world he built for the 21st.