Saturday, January 16, 2016

About Bowie

Talking heads from David Cameron upwards have had their say on David Bowie and why he was important and what he really meant. The guy’s barely been (secretly) cremated and already a backlash has started, the main criticism being that this is an orgy of irrational grief unprecedented since the whole Diana thing; maybe even more over the top since this mourning is amplified by social media. (I learned of Diana's death from the TV news; I learned of Bowie’s from the Fantasy Death League Facebook group.)

So, leaving aside the comprehensible grief of his family and close friends, are we permitted to mourn? And if so, why are we doing so with such intensity?

First, I think, because it was a shock. This may seem a little strange, because Bowie was 69; not exactly a ripe old age these days, but a point in life where banal infirmities such as cancer are liable to become part of the background music at least. It’s not as if he was a member of the 27 club, although few would have been surprised had he joined that unhappy institution; when Bowie actually was 27, the period when he appeared in the documentary Cracked Actor, he claimed to exist on a diet of red peppers, milk and cocaine. 

But it wasn’t so much the shock that he had died; it was the realisation that he even *could* die. More than any other performer — maybe only Michael Jackson came close — he had become inextricably linked with his evolving, reincarnating personas, so we rather lost sight of the flesh and blood underneath. Yes, in theory, we knew that he’d spent the past 20 or so years in domestic bliss with his gorgeous wife and beloved daughter, the sort of thing to which mere mortals aspire — but at the same time he was still Ziggy and the Duke and Screaming Lord Byron and they can never die. How can you kill something that was never conventionally alive?

That collective delusion apart, why was he important, why was he mourned? Well, there’s the music of course and, in purely artistic terms, he wrote and performed some great pop. I could never claim to have been a devote Bowiephile in the way that some of my friends were; I owned maybe half a dozen albums in various forms; saw him in concert just the once. But his own music is just the start of it; it’s his influence on huge swathes of what came after — glam, punk, indie, new romantic, synth pop, industrial, event elements of soul, funk and dance — is incalculable. For the past few days I’ve been surrounded by people who were perhaps too young to have fully understood what Bowie meant, some even who’d never heard of him. I’ve been trying to construct for them a musical universe in which Bowie never existed, a sort of It’s A Wonderful Life in which Jimmy Stewart has screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo — and it’s a horribly bland place, I can tell you.

But it’s not just the music, is it? What Bowie really offered was a sense of identity and belonging for those of us who didn’t really belong. The square pegs, the left-handers, the kids who got picked last for the football team. Inevitably there have been countless references to a specific TV performance of Starman in July 1972, a moment that appears to have transformed the lives of pretty much everyone who saw it, each believing that when he sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” it was a personal invitation to attend some kind of Bacchanalian tea party. I missed that moment but there were plenty more through the years, a series of glorious happenings that never seemed contrived, second-guessing the zeitgeist while selling records almost as an afterthought. The sounds and the costumes and the characters changed but what remained consistent was his otherness, out of time, out of place, at once cool and awkward, Hamlet and Meursault and Josef K, how we wanted to be and how we were in one package. As we put on our red shoes and immediately fell wanking to the floor, he was a sort of Platonic ideal of how to be. And now that he’s dead — and even though his death was enigmatic and surprising and delivered with extraordinary timing, he’s dead — we realise that he was mere meat and bones and earwax like the rest of us.

But he did it so well. And those of us 40- and 50-somethings who stumbled through our dreary existences for the past week, sharing memories and tears and fuzzy YouTube clips of strange TV appearances in 1976, maybe what we’re really grieving for is the fact that however often we paint on that Aladdin Sane flash, we are not and never will be Bowie.