At around half past six this morning, the news broke that David Bowie had passed away last night after an 18 month battle with cancer, at the age of 69. Renowned for radically changing his musical style with each of his 27 albums, his often dazzling stage set-up and costumes, and sharing the studio and stage with a variety of musicians from Luther Vandross to Freddie Mercury via Iggy Pop, Bowie has always been a cause for intrigue and undying fascination. From the lush folk-stylings of his debut in 1967, to the jazz-infused skronk of his latest release, Blackstar, released just two days before his death, Bowie encompassed nearly every popular genre throughout his 49 year career – from glam to funk, pop to krautrock and everything in between. Combining music, theatricality, fashion and sexuality in a defiant and unpredictable manner incomparable to any individual past, present or future, David Bowie irreversibly altered the course of music of the past 49 years, and his influence will be felt for generations to come.
He was frequently described in the media as a ‘musical chameleon’ which does no justice to his originality – a chameleon changes according to the background, but Bowie changed the background to fit around him, influencing countless musicians along the way, always one step ahead of everyone else. Not only did he experiment vastly with music, the theatricality of his general demeanour was also integral to his career – from acting on the stage to performing in numerous films. Having studied Japanese kabuki theatre and the Italian farcical comedy genre, Commedia dell’Arte, he frequently incorporated many of these ideas into his music, using his background in theatre as the key influence in the creation of many of the different personae he created for each of his records and tours. From Ziggy Stardust to Alladin Sane via the Thin White Duke, every character he created was as important to the albums and the tours as the music was, with each persona mirroring the music and lyrics. These characters were often killed off at a moment’s notice, frequently leaving his fans in the dust – gig-goers attending his post-Ziggy era shows dressed in the Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit and make-up were often distraught to find he had ‘transformed’ into the Thin White Duke, dressed quite plainly in a white shirt and waistcoat.
From the ‘plastic soul’ stylings of his 1975 record ‘Young Americans’ to the avant-kraut electronic stylings of his Brian Eno-produced Berlin ‘trilogy’ (‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’) via the new wave-indebted ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ and the pop smash hit of the Nile Rogers-featuring ‘Let’s Dance’, he never ceased to dazzle and amaze. Madonna, Billy Idol, Kanye West, Marc Almond, Edwyn Collins and numerous other musicians including longtime collaborators Tony Visconti, Brian Eno and Rick Wakeman have all paid their respects to this titan of musicality and originality, describing him as ‘the Picasso of pop’, an innovator and a genius.
Frighteningly, his latest record ‘Blackstar’ did seem to almost be a premonition. ‘Something happened on the day he died, Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside, Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried, I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar’ as the title track declares. Even the track ‘Lazarus’ features some creepy moments – ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen, everybody knows me now’.
I distinctly remember phoning a close friend the day he announced ‘The Next Day’ early in the morning on the 8th January 2013. It was his first album in over a decade and having grown up listening to Bowie, I couldn’t have been more excited. Fast forward a year or so and I was gearing up to apply to a broadcast journalism course – when I was accepted onto the course, I vowed that I would eventually interview David Bowie, no matter what the cost. A line from his song ‘Ashes to Ashes’ summed up my reaction to the news this morning – ‘I heard a rumour from Ground Control, Oh no, don’t say it’s true’.
The starman fell to earth. He will live on, but as Tony Visconti wrote in his tribute to this titan of music, ‘for now, it’s appropriate to cry’.
Rest in Peace, David Jones.