They say sport is the most important thing that doesn’t matter. For many reasons the same claim could equally be made of pop music. It shines and it shimmers. It happens under hot lights – and fast. It means everything, if you’re in the right place at the right age. Or nothing at all, if you’re not.
Only, the claim would be wrong. Sure, in a pinch, I can make believe that sport doesn’t really matter (albeit testing this, either way, is a lifetime’s experiment I won’t ever quit). But pop music, on the other hand… well, how unutterably drab life would be without it. And cold.
About a half-hour after I heard that David Bowie died I stood waiting for my morning train to arrive, in a heavy winter coat under grey skies. I wondered: how many others around me are sharing the same silent thoughts? Missing, terribly, a man we never met – and feeling a great heave of sadness.
I’m An Alligator!
Draw a circle five miles around the suburban, south London home where I grew up: David Bowie’s childhood into adolescence was spent within this same space. Boy, how far he traveled – geographically, and, most extraordinarily, inside his own head.
No one more than Bowie better exemplified the thrilling power of pop to change one thing into something else. Not only does it reveal us to ourselves – especially when, as teenagers, we run around crazy fast scrambling to figure what we like, who we like, and why – it also shows us how to live other, better lives instead.
Woody Guthrie’s guitar carried the slogan, “This machine kills fascists.” Bowie always offered something just as powerful: a bracing sense of limitless possibility. The past is set in stone, a drag, he tells us – but the future is assuredly up for grabs. So hurry up already, and grab it! Change the way you look. Change the way you sound. Change where you live. Or, indeed, don’t change if only external forces compel you to do so.
My favorite Bowie moment is the first few seconds of Moonage Daydream. Impatient for Soul Love, the song preceding it, to finish, it positively crashes into life – first, in a flash, via Mick Ronson’s assertive guitar and then as Bowie half-sings, half-shouts, “I’m an alligator!” Defiant, delirious, and joyful, you can’t help but believe him. Bowie doesn’t wait for you to catch up – just assumes, generously, that where he’s going is where you want to be. Better still, we’re invited! Even though he’s way cooler….
Oh No Love! You’re Not Alone
Maybe this is also true of you: I can’t remember ever not being a Bowie fan. In a satisfying sort of haze, his songs are there or thereabouts in countless different memories. I can picture myself as a kid hearing him at my nan’s house, but don’t remember when exactly or which song. On one car ride with mum, Rock & Roll Suicide looms large; it’s exotic forcefulness transcending the rote details of our journey. Boy George did a rousing Suffragette City on a talk-show once. And, “It’s a god-awful small affair…” has been rattling around in my brain so long I doubt it will ever leave.
As many friends from grad school in Boston will attest, just saying “David Bowie” out loud, in some approximation of his accent, has long been a smaller and sillier pleasure, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always somehow known that ‘my’ Bowie – as iridescent as he is – orbits my life less centrally as he does for many others.
Bowie’s peerless 70s – every new record an unmissable event – ended before I was born, so I never felt first-hand the white heat of his brilliant best. I was never captivated by him as a teenager and so inevitably missed much of what made him so special. Often, as is too easily the case in our modern iTunes world, I’ve consumed Bowie as much as cherished him – dipping in and out of his back catalog, and listening, say, to Sound and Vision and Heroes a whole lot more often than the albums they belong to.
And yet. So many of the records I did rush out to buy bear the indelible stamp of his influence: by Suede, most obviously, but Blur, Pulp, Supergrass and many others too. And I’m boundlessly grateful that Bowie has meant so much to me, so often – from Starman to Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, from “She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” to “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.”
Blue, Blue, Electric Blue
In every sense of the word, let’s be glad that Bowie left this world gayer than he found it – freer and more alluring; bigger and more enchanting; scarier and more mysterious.
Iggy Pop wrote earlier today, “I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is.” There will never be another like him, and now life without David Bowie is less thrilling. Less fabulous. Less fun.