by Jack Frayne-Reid
David Bowie was much like Bob Dylan – one of the great musical survivors of his generation, and one of his biggest influences – in that he continually reinvented himself, but never had Dylan's earthiness. Bowie was the Dylan of space. He was never down to earth; he was out there. In fact, you could probably make a War and Peace-length novel out of all the extracts of Bowie obituaries that compare him to an extra-terrestrial. In the defence of writers everywhere, Bowie did rather bring this on himself by calling his alter-ego and band Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, recording a sci-fi glam concept album that documented their Rise and Fall (1973), which, had he and his brilliant band not pulled it off with such panache, might have seemed a bit silly.
But, although he would self-referentially return to spacey themes at later points in his career, only a couple of years of it were ever spent inhabiting the Stardust persona, and you could compile another heavy tome from the amount of times the obituaries say everyone had their favourite era of Bowie; their favourite character he cloaked himself in. For me, it's the Thin White Duke, the suave lunatic who is introduced on the title track of 1976's Station to Station, "throwing darts in lovers' eyes." 1976 was the year his astonishingly dapper mugshot (the one that went viral upon his death) was taken. He was busted on "drug-related charges" (the drug in question being cannabis, which was lucky for Bowie, considering he would admit in an interview a year later that at the time he was literally driving himself insane with cocaine.)
By the next year he had miraculously kicked the coke by holing up in a West Berlin flat with Iggy Pop (don't try this, kids) and in 1977 Bowie produced and wrote on four of the greatest albums of that era; his own masterpieces Low and "Heroes" and Iggy Pop's thrilling comeback salvo The Idiot and Lust For Life. Even Station to Station and Young Americans (1975), the albums recorded in the crushing depths of his narcotic abyss, are two of his most stunning artistic statement. The latter was probably the greatest soul/funk album to be produced by a white or English person, featuring a seminal moment of rock decadence as he and John Lennon trample all over the delicate intricacies of The Beatles' Across the Universe, bellowing "nothing's gonna change my world" with nary a " jai guru deva om" in sight. It sounds bleak and tortured, nothing like hippyish, and by the end of the session they'd accidentally written Fame, a number one hit so goddamn funky James Brown ripped it off.
Each of Bowie's 1970s albums is one of the greatest ever made, with his ridiculously maxed-out mix on Iggy & The Stooges' Raw Power (1973) presaging the rawness of punk, and his production of Lou Reed's Transformer (1972) making his hero a star - a decade of music practically unrivalled in consistency and prolificacy. There seems to have been an almost universal outpouring of goodwill towards Bowie since his death, the tragedy of his loss being a rare issue to unite both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn. Some people were very critical of those paying tribute to Bowie because, after all, it's not as if anybody actually liked his music, right? A typically charming tweet from Murdoch hack Camilla Long read "So many people "crying" or "in bits" over Bowie. FUCK YOU. You are not ten - you are an adult. Man the fuck up and say something interesting."
Upon reading this I attempted to "man up" but then got watching some video of Bowie in the '70s and it got me all confused as to what exactly a man was supposed to be, so I put down my weights and other manly things and started to feel sad again (but also uplifted) thinking of Bowie’s bloody groundbreaking challenging of heteronormative, patriarchal gender roles. The only silver lining of the situation was to know that by writing a tribute to this amazing cultural titan I would be pissing off one of the most odious journalists at The Sunday Times.
It's almost as if I actually feel some sort of deep personal connection to the genius whose work – and whose mythos – I had encountered again and again, at every formative stage, right from the start of my explorations as a music fan. I'm sure that even David Cameron and George Osborne (though incapable of basic empathy for the weakest in society) are capable of shaking ass to Let's Dance, or swooning at the luscious swoop of strings behind the first line of Life on Mars' chorus. I don't think it humanises these unsavoury characters too much to say they can occasionally recognise the odd banging tune, and probably did feel a little something when they heard that Bowie had died. After all, he was rich.
Bowie had a side-career as an actor, and his contributions to the world of film are substantial. His best known lead roles were in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which helped solidify his otherworldly reputation, and – perhaps his most beloved performance – Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986). He often took small roles as real-life characters in very good films. In Martin Scorsese's passion project The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Bowie played a hilariously disinterested, effete Pontius Pilate, and his turn as Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1996) was maybe his best role of all, with him nailing Warhol's deadpan outsider discomfort.
His final film role was in Christopher Nolan's magician saga The Prestige (2006), where he played the inventor Nikola Tesla. After his death, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz succinctly observed that "David Bowie's signature acting roles include an extraterrestrial, a vampire, a wizard and onstage, the Elephant Man. This was his 'type.'" But his contributions to cinema extend beyond his acting; Todd Haynes, who has similarly drawn on Dylan's chameleonic nature, used Bowie as the inspiration for his glam-saturated study of identity Velvet Goldmine (1998). Though Bowie was unhappy with the script, and refused to let his songs appear on the soundtrack, it is a fantastic film and his influence is felt everywhere. Alan Yentob's BBC documentary Cracked Actor (1974) captures Bowie on his Diamonds Dogs Tour, and is a fascinating depiction of him at his most fractured and addled. David Lynch's indispensible cult classic Lost Highway (1997) would not be the same without its foreboding title sequence, shot from the POV of a car hurtling down a pitch black, yellow-striped road, to the skittering drum programming of Bowie's aptly titled I'm Deranged.
I'm Deranged is a fantastic example of the kind of unhinged electronica Bowie embraced in the 1990s, one of his most creatively fertile decades. Where some of his peers dismissed the technological advances in music as new-fangled nonsense, Bowie embraced them. Having felt he drifted too close to commercial vacuity and away from relevance in 1980s, Bowie spent the '90s rekindling his artistic id. This began in 1993 with the ultra-obscure soundtrack The Buddha of Suburbia (an experimental work on which Bowie played many instruments, featuring such hot electronic jams/amazing titles as the upbeat Sex and the Church and the downbeat Ian Fish, UK Heir) and Black Tie White Noise, which reunited him with Let's Dance producer Nile Rogers. From there he found his creative feet again, reuniting with his Low collaborator Brian Eno to record the pretty great experimental concept album 1. Outside - The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle (1995) - a record notable for introducing the world to Nathan Adler, art detective (nobody's favourite Bowie character) and following it up with the solid drum 'n' bass-infused Earthling (1997) and the more conventional Hours... (1999).
But although Bowie had a strong start to the 2000s, releasing Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) in quick succession, in 2004 he had a heart attack onstage and effectively retired from public life. From what his friends have said, the nine years where he neither toured nor recorded sounded like quite a blissful period in his existence, in which he was able to spend time with his young daughter that he had never been able to with his older son, at the height of his fame and musical activity. It seemed like Bowie had gracefully retired and would not be coming back. In fact, he never did tour again. But in 2013 he shocked the world by releasing a music video completely out of the blue, called Where Are We Now, with promise of a new album to follow.
The Next Day (2013) was met with immediate and resounding acclaim upon its release, although I myself felt somewhat lukewarm towards it. I felt that it was an overly conventional, clean-sounding, and rather unadventurous rock album, although there was nothing wrong with Bowie's songwriting per se. I still maintain that with its churning guitars it's one of his less sonically interesting albums, but I'm beginning to see just how precious those last few perfectly Bowie-ish songs are, conventional rock though they may be. The ballads on the album are gorgeous, too, and although the songs can be inscrutable in meaning, there's some glorious lyrical mumbo jumbo there. Sometimes it's easy to undervalue the later work of a veteran artist, when in retrospect it provides such maddening glimpses of where they were at in their final years.
Clearly The Next Day wasn't just some flash in the pan, and later in 2013 Bowie reissued it with several new tracks attached. He had begun writing and recording again as soon as he had completed the album. In November 2014, Bowie released a career-spanning compilation called Nothing Has Changed, including a new single, the moaning jazz dirge Sue (Or In A Season of Crime), featuring the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Along with its B-side, the drum 'n' bass-influenced 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, it indicated that Bowie was following a markedly more left-field path than he had been for many years. Little did anybody but those closest to him know, Bowie had received his diagnosis. He was dying of cancer.
The most bittersweet thing about Bowie's passing – although, let's be clear, the situation veers far more towards the bitter than the sweet – was that it occurred two days after the release of his phenomenal twenty-fifth album Blackstar, a boldly avant-garde work that his death turns out to be the key to unlocking. The night before I awoke to the news, I listened to Blackstar before bed. This was no repeat of The Next Day. I'd adored the bonkers title track when he'd released its video in November and, on first listens, the album sounded incredibly challenging and innovative. He was already on a lot of people's minds when he died, me included. Two days before the release of the album, he'd released a video for his song Lazarus. He'd even created a new character to play in his videos: Button Eyes. And, suddenly, when his spirit had departed this earth, lyrics and symbolism that had seemed dense and allegorical all seemed to point explicitly to a man grappling with his imminent death.
For a start, in the Lazarus video Button Eyes sang most of the song from a hospital bed and at the end of the video Bowie, face fully visible, backs into a cupboard and shuts the door behind him. Note the lyrics: "look up here, I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen." Then there's the fact that it's called Lazarus; a Biblical character who, it should be noted, in order to come back to life, had to die first. On the song Blackstar, he sings of death but also of replacement; "something happened on the day he died / spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside / somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I'm a blackstar." Girl Loves Me features repeated cries of "where the fuck did Monday go?" And most heartbreaking of all is the nostalgic reminiscences of the beautiful Dollar Days, which ends with the dying man repeating "I'm dying to" over and over again. Bowie's final song, I Can't Give Everything Away, begins with a warm trill of harmonica and is the softest, least confrontational track on Blackstar. It could not be a more perfect kind of auto-obituary; "seeing more and feeling less / saying no but meaning yes / this is all I ever meant / that's the message that I sent." All his verbs are in past tense.
I am sure these are not all the portents of death that appear on Blackstar but I must stress that, context or no context (and there's always context), it is a magnificent album, and I am not hyperbolising when I say I love as many tracks on it as I love on established classics like Young Americans or Station to Station. The sound is still recognisably rock (albeit art-rock) but, like one of its influences – Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly – almost genre-less but equally in debt to jazz and electronica. While the heavy guitars that dominated his previous albums are still present, they tend to rumble in the background, thundering to the fore of the mix when absolutely necessary, as on the ominous verses of Lazarus. The two tracks recorded for the 2014 single reappear on the album, in drastically improved versions. Bowie sings with a conviction and an elasticity that was not present on The Next Day. It’s as if he had the fear of God put in him. He was determined to make every nanosecond in the booth count. And what a voice. Although his vocal cords as exhibited on Blackstar exhibit the cracks and crevices of a seasoned performer, it had still held its power; it was still the same voice that could sing high (think the dazzling note at the end of the chorus of Life on Mars), or sing low (think the first three verses of "Heroes", before that song explodes into the stratosphere with some of his most spellbindingly intense singing).
Will Self wrote in his own lamentation of the death of Bowie "how strange it is to be living through the period when these great artists are dying – (these) avatars of the ephemeral, whose art was conjured out of the sexually-frustrated gyrations of teenagers, but over the decades both they and it grew and matured into a sort of classicism." Strange days indeed to be living through the deaths of the Baby Boomer music legends, who were there throughout the moulding of an industry we recognise today. Bowie was more of an unshakeable cultural Goliath than most – not least because many considered him more than human – but he was no stranger to observing the toll that time takes on everything. On Time, from 1973's Aladdin Sane, Bowie sings "time, he flexes like a whore / falls wanking to the floor". I’d say this is an appropriately grim image for the equally grim reality of time stealing David Bowie from among us.