OH, YOU PRETTY THING

So, a few muddled, incomprehensible words, because I still can’t quite comprehend the event itself.

Like many of my friends, peers, and contemporaries, I’ve spent the last 4 days wandering around in somewhat of a daze, trying to come to terms with news of the sudden death of David Bowie at the age of 69.

Much like Robin Williams last year, I’ve experienced a form of genuine grief, borne of the fact that Bowie has been an ever-present flavour of wallpaper in my life. I’ve never been without a Bowie song somewhere in my consciousness– on the radio, in my Walkman/disc player/iTunes playlist. When I checked, shortly after I heard the news, I had 98 Bowie songs on my iPod. Whenever I’m interviewed, and discuss my influences, he’s the first name listed. Actor, artist, musician, fashion icon, Bowie was exactly the kind of polymath artist that fascinates and inspires me, and to which I aspire.

My first exposure came relatively late in his first great period– the video for Ashes to Ashes, at age 9, on Countdown (where else?). There was nothing else like it in the world. I was simultaneously awestruck, intimidated, and scared– it was clearly dealing with subjects and emotions I was unaware of, and using a suite of imagery I wasn’t able to process. I was only just discovering music in any meaningful way. My world was still dominated by my parents’ 50s and 60s MOR sensibilities. My mother hated the Beatles for turning into hippies, for fuck’s sake: what chance did I have? The man, the song, and the video stuck with me, and stuck hard, but at the more threatening, deeper end of my experiential awareness. It is, of course, exactly where he would want to be, and where he deserved to be.

Ashes to Ashes. The first Bowie video I recall seeing.

While I grew into a Bowie fan, I grew into a ‘classic’ Bowie fan. I loved the songs, but they were the same suite of songs that the entire Western world seemed to love: those genuine classics that dominated the 1970s and early 80s. Apart from the radio standards, his currency dropped off my radar by the time I was in Uni in the very late 80s, sometime between Tonight and regular sex. A brief flurry of interest around the time of  The Saint movie in the mid-90s, when his song You Little Wonder made the soundtrack and a couple of rotations on JJJ, almost as a curiosity notwithstanding, it was his acting that I was drawn to. Sure, there was his performance in Labyrinth (Oh, the hair, oh the codpiece, oh the second-rate Muppets), but discovering The Man Who Fell to Earth and (of all things) The Linguini Incident opened up a new appreciation for the man’s ability to switch roles and faces. And, of course, he could act. Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence was a revelation, a high watermark he did not surpass until a perfectly-pitched turn as Nikola Tesla in the otherwise teeth-itchingly irritating The Prestige.

The Man Who Fell to Earth.

But there he was, always there. Always Ziggy, and The Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane, thanks to radio and my burgeoning music collection and the sheer weight of his presence within popular culture. He had become an ornament, pressed in amber.

Then, a few years ago, a chance comment to my good friend Grant Watson opened a discussion of Grant’s Bowie fandom, which was gathering strength just as mine was receding. In the process, I was exposed to the music I’d missed, all those synth and electronica-heavy experiments from the 90s, and (what we thought) were the final, atmosphere-heavy mood pieces from (what we thought) his final works, Heathen and Reality. And I fell in love all over again. My favourite songs come from this period, particularly his jungle-and-synth-infused trio Outside, Earthling and Hours. Indeed, apart from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Earthling is the only album I have in its entirety on my iPod. And, in the last few days, Blackstar, as I listen to it over and over, trying to unpick the last messages to the world of a dying man. But that, of course, is a different thing. And, of course, that’s what the man could do. Disappear from public view for ten years, and stop the world with his return. The greatest prodigal son 20th Century art ever had. Even his absence was an event.

So, here I am, with that final statement, like everyone else, not so much listening to the songs as trying to assemble the narrative behind them, the one that speaks of an artist using his last remaining moments not to enfold himself with family but with his art, to shout one last time from the edge of the cliff in the hope that this time, this final time, the world will get it. He’s not the first, of course: he’s not even the first in my playlist. The stories behind Queen’s Made in Heaven, and Freddie Mercury’s long solo sessions in the studio, laying down vocal tracks for the rest of the band to orchestrate after his death, have become musical legend, as has Warren Zevon’s unbelievable last album The Wind. And they’re both legends, and I miss them both and the impact they had on my life.

But this is Bowie. And, in some ways, those four words sum up the man’s impact, not just on my life but on popular culture as a whole over the last 40 years. No matter your argument, over legacy or influence or cultural impact or precedent; no matter who you nominate as greater, or better, or whatever; no matter how I try to rationalise that what I got from him is no more or less than what he gave to the rest of the world– 27 albums, a bunch of movies, some art, some characters; no matter how much I try to rationalise and place him in the context of every other distant, unknowable public figure I’ve only ever experienced as a man-made object. The answer is the same.

Yeah. But this is Bowie.

I still keep waiting for the new that it was all a mistake, that he’s alive and well and there’s a new album coming. I still keep waiting to get it.

Can I pick a favourite Bowie song? Can I even pick a dozen? No. Here’s one that, maybe,
you’ve not heard. Because it seems there’s always more to discover, even amongst those
who’ve had him a our constant travelling companion our whole lives.

One thought on “OH, YOU PRETTY THING

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