Bowie Is The Bedrock

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.

17 Comments

  1. Lakshmi says:

    I keep thinking I’m feeling better about it then people keep breaking my heart again.

  2. C0llic says:

    Yep, a crushing loss. And right on the heels of Lemmy, too.

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    yhancik says:

    So many things resonate with me in your article.

    I also was pretty late to the party – scandalously late considered my interest in 60s-70s rock during my teenage years. I don’t understand it in retrospect, but when I first listened to his albums I wasn’t impressed. And then I would finally *get” a song, to eventually listen to the album in repeat for weeks. It happened to me more than a few times as I was slowly catching up with his discography.

    I remember being slightly suspicious of the many Bowies at a point, wondering if there was a real Bowie in all those metamorphoses (I mean, ch-ch-changes). Turns out there was. Having many of my 90s favs fall into routine and self-parody, or simply disappear, I’m now more than admirative for writing such a long string of great, variated and relevant albums. Blackstar is, for itself, a great album. Not just “still a great album for that old guy”.

    I can SO relate to the quiet/shy thing. I find comfort in invisibility because it’s an escape from “the look of others”. While Bowie’s bowieness never really acted as an example or invitation for me, in times I need it, he reminds me that it’s ok, that you don’t need to hide yourself. And it helps. He never showed up in my dreams as a dressed up Jemaine Clement, but that’s ok. Still works ;)

    And this : link to 41.media.tumblr.com

  4. celticdr says:

    Flight of the Conchords do a pretty good Bowie voice in their “Bowie” episode.

    But yes you are right – Bowie was a true spirit of musical innovation – the fact that his last album has hit the top of the charts is a testament to this.

    PS: Brett, wear an eye patch.

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    Skabooga says:

    On your point on Bowie being easier to mock than any other pop star: when I was a silly youngster, I too was only vaguely aware of David Bowie as some singer who dressed and appeared ludicrously, and would take jabs at him whenever the subject came up. One day I heard this beautiful, haunting song being played on the radio, and when I got home, I looked up the lyrics, only to find that it was “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.

    I thought it must have been a fluke, so I searched for other songs by Bowie to prove my initial opinion of him. And I listened to them. And listened. And listened. It did not take long for me to become a full-blown admirer.

    And that is true power, greater than the transmutation of lead into gold: the transformation of an opponent to a friend.

  6. Herkimer says:

    I was never a super fan of his music. Don’t get me wrong, I can probably name ten of his songs that I love unreservedly, and I’m always pleased when I’m at a party and someone puts on Hunky Dory or something. But I rarely sit down and listen to his albums all the way through.

    I’m finding, though, that I simply felt grateful for his presence on Earth. I mean, he was David fuckin’ Bowie. He was a colossus. And I miss him more than I thought I would.

  7. OscarWilde1854 says:

    Unpopular Opinion: I can’t say I ever enjoyed Bowie… I respect what he’s done and who he was. I’ve listened to all (or a lot) of his music, and aside from his collab. with Freddie Mercury (and a couple other tracks), I never really enjoyed it much. I hope he rests in peace and my condolences to his fans… I just don’t really have any feelings about him passing.

    Well written article though Alec.

  8. Sunny_Troglodyte says:

    Logged in specifically to show my appreciation of the phrase “Celebration and change and fragility all at once”, a nice way of putting it, bravo & rip

  9. AndyTheGray says:

    He was a definitive creative inspiration to so many artistic people I know, myself included. As devastating as it is to listen to, I love his new album so much. Leave it to David Bowie to write a secret death album; he turned the end of his own life into performance art. Rock and roll.

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    alison says:

    What i find so wonderful about Bowie is how he has transcended generations without ever getting into a rut. I may be from the third generation where Bowie mattered. In my childhood he was a well-dressed old guy who sung dad pop. But he also was the strange ethereal man who presented The Snowman, and the charismatic and striking baddie from The Labyrinth. And then i forgot about him for a while.

    Later, as a teenager, i was totally into Trent Reznor, and was puzzled that on tour he was opening for that weird old silver-haired gentleman from my youth. But then that weird old silver-haired gentleman put out a wild concept album with walls of guitars, and although it felt a bit like NIN-lite, i was surprised by its ambition and curious how someone from the “pop” world seemed to be so switched on about modern electronic music. I read a little more, and it turned out he was a frequent collaborator with the godfather of ambient Brian Eno. I was obsessed with analog synthesizers and electronic music at the time, and i stumbled across a quote about how Bowie had wanted to use a saxophone in a song, but it just didn’t sound fat enough so they went back and recorded it with an ARP instead. Who is this guy and why does he keep popping up in my life? And then, hang on a second, this guy is the same guy who sang that science-fiction classic about Major Tom?

    It all started coming together for me. I bought a whole stack of his back catalog, in particular the Ziggy Stardust era. And i got it. I really got it. At exactly the moment in my life i started questioning my gender identity and perhaps also my sexuality, here was this beautiful androgynous creature on the cover of Aladdin Sane. And then i watched Velvet Goldmine, and i really fucking got it. Gangly awkward kid from England metamorphosizes into wild drug-addled sparkling sexual alien of rock’n’roll. And i cried, how i cried to Five Years, and Lady Stardust, and Starman, and i relived all the emotions people my parents’ age did as teenagers.

    And then i explored the folksy psychedelic stuff. And then the odd krautrocky stuff. And it all felt timeless, because unlike other pop stars who happily reinvent themselves each era, all his music felt like it was somehow grasping for something beyond the era, a little outside of it. It wasn’t always successful, and when i think about these genres i would never pick a Bowie song as the most memorable, but somehow they all feel thematically strong and avante garde without ever getting pretentious.

    I wouldn’t put many of his songs up there as my favorite of all time – come on, i’m still an 80s raver kid whose most profound musical loss up till now has been Frankie Knuckles – but as an artist i don’t know if he will ever be paralleled my lifetime. His impact on me personally, and all of my musical idols is immense. I was shocked when i heard the news. The spaceman is gone. I thought he’d live forever. I made it through the whole week burying myself in work, till on Saturday i collapsed into tears listening to his cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s America. I’m still mourning.

    That was longer than i expected it would be.

  11. SpinyNorman says:

    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.

    This. This. This. Even if you didn’t want to be different on the outside, it meant you were ok to be different on the inside. Not follow the herd.

  12. Peppergomez says:

    This was a really nice article. Thanks Alec.

  13. guygodbois00 says:

    I will always remember that episode of Extras when Ricky finally “makes it” and Bowie makes a total ass out of him in the club. Good times.