It’s a balmy summer evening in Brisbane. For the past hour or so, I’ve been glued to my mobile phone screen, attempting to process the unthinkable news that’s exploding on social media. David Bowie has lost an 18-month-long struggle with cancer that was kept so quiet that the recent launch of what was to be his final release, Blackstar, proceeded without any hint of disquiet. When a Facebook friend posted the news of his death, I balked. Surely a hoax. Yes, we all agreed, it must be a hoax. After the recent passing of Stevie Wright, followed closely by that of Lemmy Kilmister, some sick super creep must be taking the piss. Agonising minutes followed, as confirmation trickled in via a vast array of increasingly reputable news sources. Christ. It’s true. He’s gone. I think of the Lazarus video and feel a chill crawl up my spine.
Everyone and their dog is posting a favourite YouTube clip, photo, or song lyric. Profile photos switch to his image or a simple black star. I feel suspended in unreality – in shock. No other celebrity death in my lifetime has had such a paralysing effect on me and I start to wonder why. As I read the tributes and grief-filled outpourings, it strikes me that there are almost no two identical images or recollections shared of this extraordinary individual who had clearly united such an incalculably massive audience. A creative genius, visionary, and true renaissance man, David Bowie was infinite things to infinite people. Some are farewelling their starman, others their goblin king. The walls of Facebook stream with snaps of a fresh faced young David Jones, a glam superstar flying his freak flag high, an urbane dandy in fedora and tailored suits, an androgynous alien with flame red hair and razorblade cheekbones, a stylish older statesman.
When art polarises, its controversy can be the catalyst for exciting possibility. When art unites, it transcends. His innovative, boundary-breaking work has confronted, challenged, and astounded, yet it has never been unfashionable to be into Bowie. I can personally think of no other musician quite as universally revered by people from so many walks of life. He influenced the likes of Joy Division, Paul Weller, KISS, Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson. Rappers, including Jay Z and Kanye West, are paying their respects via Twitter. Metal artists, including Mike Portnoy, Devin Townsend, Nikki Sixx, and Tom Morello are doing likewise. Scores of New Wave, Electro, Industrial, and Brit Pop artists owe a huge debt to his music. He bent genders before it was in and paved the way for attitudinal changes concerning expressions of sexuality. His musical contributions have been covered, reworked, sampled, and added to countless movie soundtracks. Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, even famously covered Space Oddity from, appropriately, the International Space Station.
And of course you can’t mention Bowie without thinking of fashion. A keen style follower and trendsetter, his chameleon-like costume changes have inspired designers from Jean Paul Gaultier to Dries van Noten and Alexander McQueen.
But there are endless articles being written about the timeline and specifics of his artistic contribution. My aim, instead, is to offer a reflection of what Bowie meant to me. Today, generation gaps seem to narrow as we lament the loss of an individual who provided us each with our own personal musical backdrop. A friend’s teenage daughter posts an RIP on her Facebook wall and I smile as I recall which of his albums I was listening to at her age (Never Let Me Down of 1987). It’s overwhelming, but no matter how many tributes I read, I’m still eager for more. For the first time in my life, I find myself shedding tears over a celebrity death. I’ve certainly felt saddened by many and have felt low for friends who have lost creative heroes, but the depth of my grief over this passing almost confounds me. If someone asked me who my top five artists of all time were, would I have thought of Bowie? I’m not sure. Yet, if I’m honest, I’m probably familiar with more of Bowie’s work than any other musician I’ve appreciated over time. You just didn’t have to conjure him up for any ‘best of’ lists. He was a given. There’s almost a kind of complacency that settles in when an artist has reached such untouchable stature – a sense of their being immortal. In the music pantheon, who comes close in terms of audience reach and being a household name? Possibly Michael Jackson and, as fate would have it, another man born on the same day of the year: the 8th of January. Elvis may have been King, but Bowie was, to me, and many others, creativity personified.
I was born in 1972, the year Bowie had his major break with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. That same year, Bowie co-produced Lou Reed’s groundbreaking Transformer. Like other kids of that time, I was immersed in the hit tracks from Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, and the Young Americans that were picked up by commercial radio. To me, Bowie had always just been there in the background. My schoolmates and I knew the words to Changes, Starman, and Space Oddity and sang them into our hairbrush microphones at parties. We were pretty clueless as to what the lyrics of Rebel Rebel were about, but they excited us, all the same: ‘Hot tramp! I love you so!’ we’d chirp, in our pre-pubescent voices at church dances. The bedroom walls of friends’ sassy, Amco-wearing older sisters were routinely adorned with Bowie posters and his albums were to be found in the collections of hipper parents than mine. He was on Countdown and Take 5 and The Kenny Everett Show. I eventually really came to discover Bowie for myself. It probably wasn’t until I started seeing the hypnotic Ashes to Ashes clip on high rotation on the ABC in the early eighties that I started to take proper notice of what he was doing. It was weird and other worldly and I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a second. I came to realise that David Bowie was creating his own mythic universes of curious phenomena. I was still very young and terribly naïve when a worldlier friend showed me the film adaptation of Christiane F on VHS. Its unflinching grittiness rocked me and compounded my image of Bowie as being from another, edgier, world. The next time I saw Bowie onscreen was in The Hunger, languid and elegant, alongside Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. That film buried itself in my psyche and Bowie became something other than a mere pop star to me. Brisbane of the seventies and eighties wasn’t the most exotic, culturally diverse place on earth. For someone feeling marginalised and living in what was often joked about as being a large country town, Bowie’s flamboyance, self-expression, and sexual fluidity offered a tantalising window into a world of possibility.
When I started buying albums with my own pocket money, a cassette version of Let’s Dance was among my first purchases. Thanks again to Top 40 radio, I was already very familiar with the title track, as well as Modern Love and China Girl. By this stage, Bowie had again reinvented himself, with a completely different style, visually and musically. The androgynous space oddity had transformed into a dapper blond new wave heartthrob. I ran straight out and bought a t-shirt in which I occasionally dressed my little brother, (possibly against his will) in a bid to boost his street cred. The China Girl clip, shot in Australia, was an anti-racist statement that won Best Male Video at the MTV music awards. The beauty of that video haunts me to this day. Its predecessor, the Let’s Dance video was also shot Down Under, and also reflected Bowie’s stance against racism with its depiction of indigenous versus imperialist conflict. It was strange and wonderful to see this British pop star singing in an outback pub (The Carinda Hotel) and concerning himself with our cultural affairs.
Tonight and Never Let Me Down were two more albums I regularly played in my high school years. While neither achieved outstanding critical acclaim, they were important to me, personally, and I played them endlessly. The Blue Jean and Loving the Alien videos are classic mid-eighties Bowie: smoke machines, stylised backdrops, sax, suave. When The Glass Spider tour came to Australia, we heard news of the extravagant, elaborate sets and theatrical elements of the show. I’ve never ceased to regret missing that tour.
Not long after that, I must confess, I lost regular touch with his musical output until Heathen of 2002, which made it into the Top 10 of the ARIA charts. In the interim, there was such an enormous back catalogue of music to feast upon that I was able to drift away from what I guess I thought were less accessible and more experimental offerings throughout the nineties without feeling I was missing out. Although, I remember sitting with a fellow Bowie fan, transfixed by a Rage Bowie special back in the nineties. Even though we were familiar with all the tunes, we were newly knocked out by the sheer artistry of the clips and the memories they stirred in each of us. We talked about him until daylight, unable to pick a favourite song. Who can? Bowie has been a constant – always offering a dependable soundtrack to our lives. And there’s arguably a Bowie song for every occasion. Who hasn’t been perked up by a good, wall-wobbling blast of Heroes, Jean Genie, or Rebel Rebel before a night out? Who isn’t floored by the vocal majesty of Under Pressure? Who hasn’t sung along with Golden Years, Changes, Suffragette City, or Modern Love in the car when they’ve come on the radio? Perennial Christmas fave, Little Drummer Boy with Bing does the rounds every December. As a side note, I Keep Forgetting and Letter to Hermione are handy go-to break-up tracks, just fyi.
Really, Bowie seemed immortal. I don’t know how a person achieves that standing in our collective consciousness but it seemed that he always was, and always would be… Bowie without end… Amen. Still, here we are on the 10th of January (11th in Australia), 2016, our hearts in pieces. My mum shares a birthday with Bowie, who just made it to his 69th. I inevitably also think of Bowie on her birthday each year. This year, the connection provokes some anxiety in me and I reflect on our fragile mortality. She spoke to me earlier. ‘I’m writing a reflection,’ I tell her.
‘What about?’ she asks.
‘Bowie,’ I say, and I’m surprised to hear my own voice choked with emotion.
‘Oh, why Bowie?’ she wants to know.
When I tell her of his death, she is rocked by the news. Not a person disposed to giving much of a toss about celebrities or their lives, she is clearly affected, too.
‘It was just his birthday the other day.’
‘I know, Mum,’ I respond quietly.
The aftershocks are likely to continue for some time. Tonight, hits on his YouTube clips will boom exponentially. Fans the world over will pull out their old 45s of Aladdin Sane and Low and The Man Who Sold the World. There will be tribute nights and theme parties. We’ll mourn. But he got to see the release of his 25th studio album and that’s something. That makes me smile. Long-time producer, Tony Visconti, has described Blackstar as the great man’s parting gift to us all and reminds us that, even at the very end, Bowie, being the quintessential artist, transformed his very own death into an artistic gesture. He ensured that he went out with a bang, rather than a whimper, that’s for certain. Playing the Lazarus and Blackstar clips will prove an eerie experience with the information that came to light today. Tonight I’m going to revisit my particular favourite corners of the Bowieverse and listen to the tracks that have had the greatest impact on my life. Perhaps you will, too.
Gradually, I also plan to go back and fill in the missing musical links in my Bowie history. To the rest of you who are heavy-hearted and melancholic after the news of his passing, be buoyed by the astonishing legacy that he’s left us. Sixty-nine is too young, it’s true, but Bowie’s was a life well lived and he experienced a remarkable existence wholly on his own terms. When asked what the lowest depth of misery is, he famously responded that it was ‘living in fear.’ And he was a fearless artist. As we come to terms with his passing, we could do well to reflect on the ancient Greek adage, ‘Life is short. Art eternal.’