There is a wave travelling around the world in the wake of David Bowie’s death, even through souls who think they just know a few songs from the radio. For these songs are blinding moments of precise greatness that define our times, and us. Take the obvious, yet insanely perfect Under Pressure. Heroes. Songs easy to take for granted (as they have been) which is, in itself, another marker of their creator’s genius. We play these songs and consider Bowie’s existence. Not just his obvious creativity, but also his worldviews, flexibility, good humour, endless poise and genuine elegance, even humility. People have created endless ways to see this on Youtube.
There is magic, not just novelty or shock value or theater, in his ability to rock a jumpsuit, a dress, countless costumes and personas, and even an impeccably turned out gentleman’s suit, right into 2016. Here is a remarkable human with an endless capacity to create, to thrive, to suffer, to dance with death casually as a young artist, and now, in a stunning reversal of Ziggy, to instead of burning out, decide to just live forever, to give death the middle finger. Bowie makes it look effortless, as he says, so gently, everything. Finally, it’s subtle, emotional, deconstructed, and unvarnished. We could be heroes. Just for one day.
David Bowie’s musical, artistic and cultural impact and imprint over 40 years is simply too broad AND too specific, too ephemeral AND too iconic, too deliberate and even too accidental to state in words.
To all who loved him deeply, this love was, and remains, as true and lasting as a great romance; the rarest friendship; or the fraught search for lasting love. It’s a devotion that is enviable to others who foolishly gave their youthful hearts to more fleeting stars in those formative years. It’s a devotion that moves us greatly. An expression of this acute grief comes from a dear friend and lifelong Bowie fan who had reserved a space for a tattoo to commemorate the day she met him. This day will never come. Instead, a Blackstar tattoo now takes its place.
To millions of 80’s kids, he’s The Goblin King in Labyrinth, a movie that IS childhood to many (with the great Jim Henson being another fallen star) a film celebrated in recent, nostalgia-filled years more than ever with former kids sharing it with their own kids who love it too. These kids get it. This character, his original music for that film, and the magical world therein is one felt in the softest place of the hearts of children who discovered an altogether different Bowie than those who fell in love with Ziggy a decade or so before, and both count for much.
Some of us have walked around with “Ashes to Ashes” filling our heads for days now, embedded in our psyche for years, a true clarion call, something innate. Love is like breathing, you know. You know it by its absence more than its warm glow. Others first fell for the polarizing Let’s Dance-era Bowie, another complete person, now, an impossibly blonde coiffed English gentleman shedding the old skin for something that answered back and grappled with whatever the hell music and videos and the industry was becoming in the mid-80’s. And of course, winning. Side-stepping his own myth and image(s). Only Dancing, for sure.
Fast-forward to now, to our love of film. In the most underrated of all Christopher Nolan films, The Prestige, which lovingly and cleverly unpacks the mystique, craft, graft and brutality of the world of magicians (and questions of humanity, ethics and modernity) Bowie shone effortlessly in a small role as Nicola Tesla, which, as a friend points out, was a brilliant casting choice for all concerned. Our inventor of modernity played the last century’s ever-misunderstood inventor of modernity. A look back at Bowie’s film body of work is impressive, another aspect about the artist that was fairly ignored or tolerated in the 70’s and 80’s as artists are to “stay in their lane” as if Bowie ever needed roads at all.
“I never done good things. I never done bad things. I never did anything out of the blue. ” – David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes, 1980.
A must-see you might have missed: Bowie’s appearance in Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s Extras in a cameo that will go down in history, as a version of himself, responding both to an intrusive fan (one suspects, of legions who’ve approached the man in private life to then spill their guts to their hero as unwitting “Father Confessor” or therapist) and responds to Gervais’ character, Andy’s newly famous predicament: he’s sold out. He’s finally made it as an actor, only to enter a layer of hell and ridicule and self-loathing, his own creation turned monstrous and yet banal. Like our “Reality”TV. “Lowest common denominator”. Our post-modernity, our shameful culture we’ve created. This clip must be seen, as one of Gervais’ darkest and most darkly funny moments in his perfected abyss of cringe humour. What a good wit, what a brilliant sport Bowie must have been to play with his own image in this way.
Who are we when we laugh at this meta-humour in Extras? The fool, cringing down into the couch cushions, who’s crossed the line with the real star? The punters who throw insults or bottles? The TV audience who sit in the dark, blinking, uncritically absorbing projected garbage for hours, no longer reading books, letting our records and even CDs become trash and buying all the lies of progress and technology? Or are we the darkly criminal bootlegger, who steals music and “content” and never pays the cost of admission, of tribute, to allow art to live anywhere anymore? We just know we aren’t Bowie.
Then, for persistent non-Bowie fans, there’s the notable fans-turned great artists who we do love; whose lives, hearts, and voices he enabled, saved, changed and transformed. We love, by extension, Bowie, if we love the work of singular director Todd Haynes of the beautiful Far From Heaven (who’s current film, Carol, is enjoying rich world wide acclaim), John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask (whose piece of art Hedwig and the Angry Inch has legs for decades and whose figures pay direct tribute while creating something wholly new and important in rock opera) the great Eurythmics & Annie Lennox (the only heir to the musical throne, maybe, and another peerless peer of Bowie’s) or fans of The Smiths, Morrissey, James, Suede, and countless other bands (and all of us music fans whose lives have been changed or saved by any of these artists).
“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear” – A side note from Space Oddity, predicting our current celebrity culture.
Bowie, without a doubt, along with his (few) contemporaries, made possible the rallying cry of Hedwig in the 2001 film version of the musical that looks back to 30 years of true gender bending, questioning, queer (by all its definitions) freak (now reclaimed by Bowie and his devotees, so many artists themselves, famous or not, and finally a badge of honour) and outsider as essential cultural critic and as “REAL Rock and Rollers”; a cultural moment which marked the first generation that could begin to widely and openly love and marry whomever their hearts desired; could enjoy life and safety in at least the major cities of the world; could be seen on their own terms as both artistic constructions and just people, too; and in TV and film were at last no longer just the cartoon, wacky best friend but human; that might experiment with style, fashion, and identity questions that many kids need like air. “All the misfits and the losers.” In just 30 years.
That same year, as the century ended, Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge made a delicious pastiche of music and art from all genres and eras, situating it exactly in 1899, and with Bowie uttering the words of the film’s central theme (amid byzantine spectacle) as an argument for love in spite of all its enemies, the fuckery of the world, and even death itself. Formed out of an old Nat King Cole song performed by Massive Attack and David Bowie was “Nature Boy”, which tells us: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
David Bowie’s only son, Duncan Jones, directed Moon, his debut film, which was not but yet in hindsight can be seen as a complete reckoning, tribute, and assessment of his father’s almost otherwordly legacy and both his early iconic image and his fascination with the questions symbolized by space travel, isolation, adventure, and originality.
There are countless other examples; these are just among our own touchstones.
Not just an artist and a musician who inspired even his own heroes and peers, Bowie was also a thinker, a self-made intellectual, ever-curious, and a survivor, in touch with much darkness and true light, and a human who was so unique in his ideas, and always way ahead of his time, that he is and will forever be Alien (notably to interviewers who gaped as they failed to meet his gaze or his reasonable expectations or be worth his time.) For a man that so many wanted a piece of, he maintained his privacy, dignity, family life, finances, and image, most stunningly- in a careful and respectable way that is currently out of fashion – unfortunately. Bowie teaches us, in his passing, yet again, to pay attention to the musicians, actors and artists of today who don’t cheapen themselves and compromise their values and who are deserving of much love and support from whatever platform you have.
There will never be another Bowie, that we always knew. But there are many artists who have something to say, who are not rich, manufactured, polished, or corrupt, and who are ever-more calling out against a riot of artificial pop stars and celebrities, too many enriched, applauded frauds who are stealing all of our cultural airspace. The artists are losing to noise and nonsense that passes for music, news, and talent. We fans are losing, the world is losing and we are forfeiting the art form of music to a death that is as assured as the melting polar caps. But there’s hope.
Bowie was an artist to the end of his days on earth- and beyond. His last 18 months, we now know, were lived authentically and gracefully as a private man and as a true artist-still wresting art from the very marrow of his bones. From that evil Blackstar. It’s absolutely breathtaking to realize what he did with the blackness we all await. It has no doubt made him legions of new fans who’ve needed to hear this perspective on the fucking evil we all face, all around us, next to us, even in us, that equalizing never ending cause of loss to us called cancer. He actually made art out of it. He went on and lived as he wanted to. He assured his immortality and his voice in culture and music and speaks to all of us still. Still challenging. Still surprising. Never, ever a nostalgia act. Bowie speaks plainly and ever elegantly from somewhere up there, listen:
(David Bowie: Lazarus)
Look up here, I’m in Heaven!
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,
Everybody knows me now
Look up here, man, I’m in danger!
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cellphone down below
Ain’t that just like me?!…
…Oh, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh, I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me?
By Jacqueline Howell & Dave MacIntyre. With love.