In the UK yesterday everything it seemed was pretty much dominated by a huge outpouring of love and grief for David Bowie, and it is indeed very sad. At the same time at least we were lucky enough to get so much of the man’s art over what was a long and varied life – which is one of the things that certainly I found most impressive about the man – the way he played the reinvention game to perfection time and time again and usually seemed to be at least two steps ahead of what the music journalists and his fans expected. That’s a rare feat to pull off.
I was too young to really appreciate the seventies groundwork on his career and I do feel I missed out on the out there vibe of particularly the Ziggy Stardust stuff, which in retrospect would have suited me as a teenager down to the ground in both the aspects of flamboyancy – and, at that stage of my life – the mixture of music, science fiction tropes and sexual ambiguity. On the other hand, the thought of the teenage me with dodgy orange hair and skin tight jumpsuits does make me wonder if the universe was indeed saved from something even more terrible than the Laughing Gnome (let us not pretend that does not exist. He was young).
Indeed my main Bowie moments are based around the mainstream explosion in the 1980s and ‘Space Oddity’ from even earlier. I adored the latter as a child. It was sad and strangely uplifting at the same time and was like nothing else I had heard up unto that point. We always have impacts from the music our parents had and played, whether those be the scars that mean you cannot go near something again or whether a type of music becomes something of an aural version of a comfort blanket. In my house it was a weird bipolar mixture of the trendy (Beatles, Bowie and the likes of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates) to Easy Listening purgatory (Val Doonican, Barbara Dickson etc.) and all of it had some impact. But although I had an entry into Bowie through Major Tom, I did not take it.
Instead the next time that I got hit with Bowie fever was the wonderful video for ‘Let’s Dance’. Note that it is the video that sticks in my head, not so much the song (great though that is). Again, it is the mixture of different emotions that permeates it. On the surface the song is quite upbeat, even slightly soppy. But the video takes that, subverts it and adds a disturbing sense of wrongness to the whole thing that manages to unsettle and leaving you somewhere ambiguous about what is wrong and what may be right.
I think for me what makes Bowie’s work so interesting at times is the refusal to play the game and to allow anything to be tied down to one thing or another. I always feel that his art is saying something, but I’m never entirely sure as to what it actually is (and, at its best, it is probably saying completely different things perfectly coherently to different people). I mean, what is ‘Life on Mars’ actually about? I’ve no idea. I am not even sure it needs to be about something anyway if it is capable of generating a response every time out of people (even if that is to turn it off).
Perhaps the weirdest thing for me is based on all this isn’t it this or isn’t it that, it is hard not to be slightly suspicious that David Bowie is not actually dead but has just gone back to whatever weird planet he originally came from. Here’s hoping. In the meantime, finishing now with my favourite Bowie lyric, which I commend to all:
‘He told me:/Let the children lose it/Let the children use it/Let all the children boogie.’