Here’s a good old-fashioned predicament for you. In just a moment, I’ll write something straight-up honest – but you’ll likely assume it’s a rotten fib. Well, you’ll just have to trust me, I’m afraid; notwithstanding the usual folly of trusting someone because they ask you to.
Here goes: after getting this song-by-song book for my birthday, I was on the biggest Bowie kick for at least a month before he died – and then, after, I just didn’t stop. I’d gone, like, three stops on the bandwagon before the world and his wife started jumping on… Yeah, so what right? Let’s just call it a convenient truth, and I’ll hurry on up to the filling in this particular sandwich.
In the spirit of modern sports reportage, here’s Five Things I Learned About David Bowie (By Obsessing Over Him For Quite A Long Time).
(1) The quantity is just as impressive as the quality
Indeed, you may well have noticed already: the Bowie back catalog is immense! In my concentrated burst of listening, I’ve scarcely skipped a beat. Bowie at home. Bowie on headphones. At work. On the radio. In the car… And yet, still I’m anguished by great, shameful gaps. Only a handful of plays so far for Aladdin Sane, the follow up to Ziggy Stardust. Fewer still for Lodger, the last of the famous Berlin trilogy. Worse, I’m in the most unfortunate position of not even owning The Man Who Sold the World, made at the start of Bowie’s golden years, and Pin Ups, from bang in the middle of that period.
Up to and including Blackstar, Bowie left behind Himalayan peaks. Roving after them is the greatest thrill – a huge undertaking that gets even bigger as you go.
(2) ’75 to ’80 was one almighty hot streak
In four-and-a-bit years, Bowie consecutively released Station to Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, and Scary Monsters. Now that, my friends, has to be one of pop culture’s greatest ever hot streaks. If he was a forest, he would have been on fire. If he was a river, he would have been smashing through the levee. If he was a rocket, he would have been to Mars and back.
No wonder Ashes to Ashes at the end of it all manages to sound – all at once – frayed, valedictory, and resolute. Bowie’s creativity was burning at its brightest, but he could no longer fuel it with the same restless intensity. Fly any closer to the sun and you simply don’t come back.
(3) He got a lot of help
Time and again, Bowie proved that getting other talented people to work with you is a talent in itself. Just as some people marry well, he always collaborated well – coaxing the very best out of others, and eager for them to return the favor. Everybody upped their game: from Ken Scott, Tony Visconti, Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers on production duties (via much else besides), to a long line-up of ace guitar players, Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar, et al – and beyond (Lou and Iggy sure found some form, didn’t they).
Bowie didn’t wait for the muse to find him, he went out looking for it – in many other places, in books, in other people’s records. And whenever he found a willing partner, worthy of the role, they were smart enough to cancel other plans. (That other London boy and genius, Alfred Hitchcock, had the same happy knack.)
(4) He’s an uncanny combination of accessible and distant
It’s a touch tricky, sometimes, to know what exactly Bowie is going on about. Take the early self-mythologizing of Quicksand for example: “I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes/Living proof of Churchill’s lies.” Or the first words of Station to Station, after three-and-a-bit minutes of percussive whirring and hissing: “The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.”
For sure, Bowie’s reputation for otherness is well-earned. Likewise, his boundless capacities for reinvention, experimentation, and staying up too late. Just as you try to pin him down, he slips away. He’s either out of time, or ahead of it. It seems somehow wrong that his first album came out the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, of course, he was done with Ziggy and on to the next thing before anyone else was ready for so sudden a departure.
Through it all, mind, Bowie always sounds like Bowie. And he was, palpably, a star. He wrote hit songs that compel your hips to move. He spoke fluent teenager, to a generation that hung on his every word. And, most impressive of all, by the force of his own example he proved that asserting your individuality is the best defense against feeling ostracized. After all, “We can be heroes, forever and ever/What’d you say?”
(5) To know him is to love him
I have simply loved listening to Bowie over the last couple of months. It has been such a pleasure and so much fun. And what do you know? Even as I’ve attempted to apply some critical thinking to his work – and have sought this out as a reader – I’ve fallen inexorably into being a fan, with all that entails.
I’m 16 again, breathless, and in awe. Bowie played the Rebel Rebel riff himself. So cool. Bowie called out MTV for it’s lack of diversity – on MTV and back in 1983. So cool. That voice, oh, that voice.
The Starman came to meet us, and did blow our minds. How did we get so lucky?