David Bowie – An Artist To The Very End
There are musicians. There are legendary musicians. There are icons. And there is Bowie. One of those rare artists identifiable by surname only. His death this morning was and is still a shock to millions of people around the world. He was supposed to be immortal, wasn’t he? Over the weekend, music publications and websites were unanimous in praise for his Blackstar album, which appeared on 8 January, his 69th birthday. Listening to it now, Bowie was telling us he was ill, with not much time left on this earth. It was, as his long-time producer Tony Visconti said this morning, ‘a parting gift’ for his fans. Diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago, Bowie threw himself into his work for what he must have known would be the last time. An artist to the very end.
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton, South London, he studied art, music and design at school. After spending some time in R&B bands, he signed to Decca and in 1967 released his first folk-influenced album David Bowie. Eager to expand upon his musicianship and elevate his act, he studied theatre and mime with the dancer Lindsay Kemp. In 1969 he released ‘Space Oddity’, timed to coincide with the moon landing, and scored a top five hit. He embraced a rockier sound on 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, significant for the fact that it was the first time he joined forces with long-terms allies, producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson. In 1972, the musical landscape changed forever when Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous alien glam-rock star, backed up by his band The Spiders From Mars. Their performance of ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops changed the lives of a generation and influenced countless artists in-waiting. Gently draping his arm around Mick Ronson, he awakened every sexually confused young person who watched that night, creating hundreds of future pop stars in the process. He killed off Ziggy in 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon but the hits continued – ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ amongst them. In 1975, he embraced soul on Young Americans, which gave him an American No. 1. Bowie’s creativity and originality continued at breakneck pace, and the following year he adopted another persona, the Thin White Duke, and released Station To Station. Now residing in Cold War-era Berlin and working with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, he released the much lauded Krautrock-influenced ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of Low, Heroes and Lodger between 1977 and 1979. The superb Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) followed in 1980, giving him another Number 1 with ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the video for which starred Steve Strange, lead singer of Visage. Bowie’s influence was now becoming apparent on the new wave of groups making their way up the UK’s pop ladder, from the post punk dramatics of The Cure and Joy Division to the New Romantics’ poster boys Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Musically, however, Bowie found himself at a crossroads in the early 1980s, struggling perhaps for the first time in his career to create a new sound and vision. Enter Nile Rodgers and a bleached-blonde sex symbol for the glossy 80s was born, with a more commercial sound. Having predictably tired of this persona and style, he invented Tin Machine, a harder, abrasive rock group who once played a secret show in Dublin’s Baggot Inn in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, he dabbled in electronic textures on Black Tie White Noise, industrial rock and even drum ‘n’ bass on Earthling. From 2003 onwards, ill-health prevented him from recording and touring. The silence was broken in 2013 with the release of The Next Day, which had somehow been secretly produced in NYC with Tony Visconti over the course of 2014. It painted a picture of a frailer Bowie, marked by the sombre mood of the album. He made it clear that there would be no public appearances to promote the album however. Which brings us to last Friday and the release of David Bowie’s final record Blackstar. Musically influenced by jazz, with particular inspiration from Kendrick Lamar, its fitting that the first musical instrument he was given as a young boy, the saxophone, is prevalent throughout.
I have very early memories of David Bowie. I’m fairly sure ‘Space Oddity’ was the first song I ever heard. I don’t remember how or when but, as I grew up, it was a song that I just seemed to know the words to, as if it had been planted in me like a microchip. As an 8 year old covered in my mother’s make up dancing round my Walkinstown bedroom to Adam & The Ants and Soft Cell, I was blissfully unaware that my heroes were direct descendants of Bowie. As adolescence approached, my Sunday afternoons were whiled away in front of MT USA, where amongst the earnest rockings of Tom Petty, Springsteen, etc, I would often catch the Bowie ‘triple treat’ of ‘China Girl’, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Blue Jean’. I remember Live Aid 1985 when his perfectly quiffed hair and immaculate suit and loafers made him stand out from the endless catwalk of jeans and trainers. It was Bowie who agreed to cut his set short at Geldof’s request in order to play a harrowing video, set to The Cars’ ‘Drive’. And, finally, as the musically formative years of the late teens enveloped me, I became consumed by The Smiths, another band whose carefully cultivated image and attitude was lifted from the Bowie manual. In short, his presence and influence were to be found everywhere. And it wasn’t just the cool kids at school that had Bowie scrawled on their bags and copybooks – for the outsiders and misfits he was their champion. Even the school bully dug Bowie. I didn’t get to see him live until 1995, when he played the Point Depot, supported by Morrissey. The adoration from his die-hard fans and the love they were giving him that night will live with me forever. Everyone knew every lyric, and everyone I spoke to had seen him in concert on numerous occasions before. These weren’t just fans, they were devotees. This is what Bowie inspired.
Over the last 20 years, artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Suede, Jay Z, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Marilyn Manson and LCD Soundsystem have cited him as not just an influence, but the singular biggest influence on their careers. Look at the fashion world, where Bowie’s inventive, avant-garde approach to stage costumes made an indellible imprint on designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Kansai Yamamoto. His artistic bravery, integrity and originality inspired all kinds of creative souls across a vast spectrum, and will arguably be his legacy. He fell to earth, changed music, and returns to the stars tonight, celebrated and never to be equalled. So, tonight, play your Bowie records, your tapes, your concert movies. Cry. Sing. Dance. In our lifetime, we will not see anyone like him again.
David Bowie 1947 – 2016
Words by Keith McGouran