Beyond Blackstar - belated notes on Bowie by Alex Williamson


‘Time takes a cigarette.’

Just over a month has lapsed since David Bowie’s death from cancer. The obituaries have all but stopped, and the special limited edition publications been sold, or shredded. Social media has returned to normal, being suddenly devoid of expressions of shock, horror and sorrow. The loss of others in his stead has diluted and deflected our grief: Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Maurice Winters, Terry Wogan (to some extent). Time diligently goes about his business, and we begin the long process of forgetting. We have entered the post-Bowie era.

Ever since Princess Diana died, public displays of grief have become a national pastime. Bowie’s death took that to a new level. As a signifier of Bowie’s regal status, a number of fans called vainly for a state funeral. Personally I can’t imagine anything less befitting. To seek catharsis from trauma is only natural; to expect the nation to come to a standstill for a musician is absurd.

With Bowie, everyone had a view and the means – via social media – to express it. In the hours – hours – after the announcement of his death there followed a raft of respectful and insightful pieces on his life and work: in the mainstream media, on blogs, podcasts, websites and magazines. (Attempts at balance were made via the usual tabloid gutter-dredging, some Bowie-as-capitalist-pig critiques and half-arsed op-ed pieces by people who (barely) knew him as a kid.)

Nuanced takes on his politics, the mime years, the Berlin concert, his acting career, his inauthenticity, the valedictory last album generated a pixelated death mask of an enigma who’d spent his life hiding in plain sight. Each author struggled to come to terms with the permanent absence of an individual who was always, despite his recent reclusiveness, vividly present in the world: aurally, visually, physically, psychically.

None of which moves us any closer to the deceased: born David Jones in 1947; resident of Brixton, Beckenham, Los Angeles, Berlin and New York; husband of Angie and Iman; father to Duncan and Lexi; singer, actor, producer, artist, hybrid; equal parts man and woman, straight and gay, human and alien, self and other. He took a range of influences and reshaped them as a new archetype, while all critical attempts to pin him down triggered his disappearance and reappearance as someone, or something, new.

I might as well fess up now: there is no ‘Bowie and me’ story to be had here, no clearly-defined relationship in the way that someone who grew up watching and listening to him has: Simon Critchley’s recognition of the impact of Bowie’s TOTP 'Starman' performance, or Pam Thurshwell’s enduring dedication. Nor do I possess the zeal of the recently converted young, those who weren’t even born when 'Let’s Dance' moved Bowie into the mainstream, but who have now taken him as one of their own. For a summary of all that was good about Bowie, Thurschwell has it down pat:

"Bowie was phenomenal, and his death an incomparable loss: as a musical experimenter, a rock star, a beacon for disaffected, frightened freaks and adolescents, a queer role model, a brilliant song-writer, a charisma machine, an alien from the future, a creative force, a generous interviewee, the best possible advertisement for bad teeth and different colored eyes, he was a shape-shifting revolutionary. He made taking yourself too seriously look good, but then worked well with Muppets. He seemed both restless and serene. He constantly made mistakes, and yet, in the end, got everything, always, completely right, even death."

In my solipsistic excursions, I’ve exercised a degree of cultural blindness towards David Bowie. I own only a fraction of his extensive output, generally the core, critically-lauded albums, and woeful personal finances have prevented my acquisition of The Next Day or Blackstar. Unlike most uber-fans, I cannot speak with any real authority about his work, as I have read just one biography – David Buckley’s Strange Fascination – and saw him perform live once, at Glastonbury in 2000, and that was more by accident than design.

Having ticked off the list of low-fi American artists I’d hoped to see – Elliott Smith, The Flaming Lips, Wheat – I reluctantly joined my friends for Sunday’s closing act, David Bowie. I didn’t even know he was playing until they mentioned it that day. We were almost out of weed and, having spent all day drinking and smoking in the sun, a little light-headed. With long hair and wearing what appeared to be the frock coat from the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie slowly sashayed on stage to the opening bars of an unfamiliar, glossy dirge ('Wild is the Wind'), before iPod-shuffling his way through his greatest hits.

Aside from the terrible jungle tracks, it was impressively slick stuff, but it wasn’t until much, much later that I realised I SAW DAVID BOWIE AT GLASTONBURY – an experience that will, sadly, now never be repeated. The crowd was gargantuan and no small wonder: Glasto myth has it that people abandoned their cars on the approaches to the festival site make his set. Not to mention the tens of thousands of people who’d jumped the fence that year – of which I was one. A wonderfully bacchanalian air hung over the swollen crowd that evening, complemented by the lilting smoke of scores of rubbish fires and silly cigarettes smoked by David’s denizens.

Its possible none of us were true Bowie fans. Growing up, there was only one boy at in our school year who openly admitted listening to him. Openly flouting the flamboyant artiste as a personal hero was a dangerous business at our all boys’ school, with a less-than-tolerant contingent of council estate lads ready to disabuse anyone of their dreams of Ziggystardom. This particular lad, whose vaguely-alien complexion bore a passing resemblance to The Dame, took his sartorial cues from Bowie’s 90s style. But he never went the whole hog and dyed his hair orange. (Or shave off his eyebrows.) In the post-Labyrinth, post-Tin Machine era the Bowie we knew was unfashionable, a bit naff. We used to take the piss out of him.

My parents didn’t like him either, so I was never exposed any of his albums at a young age, unlike The Beatles, Led Zep, Steely Dan, Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits. (Yep.) When I started listening to real music, there were other artists I wanted to know about. Glam's inauthenticity didn't really appeal, and Bowie fell under my radar. It wasn’t until much later that I developed what I would term an unhealthy fixation him, one which dovetailed with a protracted period of chemical indulgence.

I was first turned onto Bowie by a feminist pornography director I met while internet dating. This would have been early 2006. Hunkered down in the bunker-like basement of in George’s Bar on Villiers Street, we rapidly segued from employment to music: I expressed my affinity with Bob Dylan, she countered by saying she was a huge fan of David Bowie. I confessed I didn’t own any of his albums, and she instructed me to buy four immediately: The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Station to Station, Low, and “Heroes”.

We didn’t meet up again: I later heard she married and stood unsuccessfully as a Lib-Dem parliamentary candidate. But had we not met, it’s doubtful I would have listened to Bowie’s music with such intensity. I dutifully bought the four albums she recommended, plus Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Scary Monsters and Super Freaks.

I listened to little else during that period; it was totally immersive and utterly revelatory. In stark contrast to Dylan, who as my date had indicated rarely deviated from a standard formula, every song was different. Every single song. You could trace the evolution of his sound song by song, album by album. He was a clever bugger, Bowie. Cleverer than my beloved Dylan, anyway.

Clearly this was a more passive response than those who'd witnessed his rise. In a recent piece for The New York Times, Simon Critchley recalls Bowie’s impact on the Seventies cultural zeitgeist:

"For the hundreds of thousands of ordinary working-class boys and girls in England in the early 1970s, including me, Bowie incarnated something glamorous, enticing, exciting and mysterious: a world of unknown pleasures and sparkling intelligence. He offered an escape route from the suburban hellholes that we inhabited. Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy."

Bowie’s constant reinvention during this decade in particular produced a sequence of astonishing albums which belied his magpie-like sensibility. Even if you hadn’t been around to witness it first-hand, you couldn’t help but be struck by his audacity, ingenuity and overpowering intellect. His was an aesthetic of delimited possibility: perpetual movement through a progressive continuum of creative expression, bookended by 'Space Oddity' and 'Ashes to Ashes'.

An exceptionally English eccentric with American ambition, Far Eastern influences and European style; a technicolour chronicler of monochrome modernity and postwar consumerism, Bowie’s work emerged from and merged back into the postmodern paradigm: self-reflexive, arch, ironic, attention-grabbing – but, as identified by Simon Critchley, driven by a quest for empathy: “got to keep searching and searching / oh what will I be believing / and who will connect me with love” (‘Station to Station’). distinctively indistinct, Bowie’s art both defined and transcended his decade: his deconstructed identities, innovative songwriting and nihilistic imagery gesturing towards an irrepressible yearning for a seemingly-impossible utopia:

"What was being negated by Bowie was all the nonsense, the falsity, the accrued social meanings, traditions and morass of identity that shackled us, especially in relation to gender identity and class. His songs revealed how fragile all these meanings were and gave us the capacity for reinvention. They gave us the belief that our capacity for changes, was, like his, seemingly limitless. […] Concealed in Bowie’s often dystopian words is an appeal to utopia, to the possible transformation not just of who we are, but of where we are. Bowie, for me, belongs to the best of a utopian aesthetic tradition that longs for a “yes” within the cramped, petty relentless “no” of Englishness." (Critchley)

Conversely – perversely, even – my own interest in Bowie’s mid-70s output stemmed from its temporal fixity, the rootedness of its context. Of all the albums I owned, Young Americans was the one that I kept coming back to. At the time, some found its plastic soul featherweight and opportunistic: Bowie originally wanted to call the album ‘Shilling the Rubes’. For me, it and its transitional follow-up Station to Station, are the exemplary in his oeuvre. When I listened to the wah-wah washes of ‘Win’, or the blazing saxophone intro to ‘Somebody up There (Likes Me)’ I wanted to be there, behind the control panel in Sigma Studios, in Bowie’s headspace, under the same chemical conditions. Nose burning and brain fizzing, I would stay up until the early hours of the morning listening to his albums or watching clips on youtube: The Man who Fell to Earth, the BBC doc Cracked Actor, the Ziggy farewell concert, his unhinged interviews with Dick Cavett and Dinah Shore, Bowie on Soul Train and at the 1975 Grammy Awards, rare black and white footage from the Station to Station Tour, excerpts from Christiane F, the notorious alternative close to Cracked Actor. I let a little Bowie obsession seep into my life.

My fascination lasted for a number of years but had largely dissipated by the time of his death. This, and my late arrival to his work, make me something of Bowie tourist. The news of his death was shocking, but it did not plunge me into despair. I spent the day listening to his albums, playing them for my youngest son, scrolling through various newsfeeds, tweeting and retweeting: a little incredulous, a little downbeat, but never close to tears. A few days earlier my great aunt had died; it felt unfaithful to her memory to switch allegiance. 

Last Sunday I joined a friend at The Capitol in Forest Hill, to toast Bowie’s life. We discussed his passing: she said she never expected him to die; I thought he’d gone out in the best way possible. We agreed to disagree, and took pictures of one another in front of the slightly incongruous Bowie triptych tucked in one corner of the bar. Once an homage, now a shrine, each canvas superimposes his face upon the Horniman Museum’s clock tower. Quite why is anyone’s guess – maybe the Time connection. It’s a mad bit of art, frankly, and I’ve never understood why anyone would put them together. Not that it matters. Its very weirdness is a more than fitting tribute to south London’s most enigmatic son.