David Bowie died last night after an 18-month battle with cancer. There is a hole in music where he used to stand, right up at the front and in the center. He was the first rock star to be a little weird, and in doing so, he made it OK for a lot of us who are more than a little weird to be ourselves. Few artists have had the same personal impact. The world has lost great musicians before: Elvis, Lennon, Michael Jackson. This one, though, really hurts me.
Normally, I avoid the first person in these pages. It is a style that forces the reader to take the argument made for what it is: reasoned opinion rather than a feeling about stuff. In this case, I can’t do that and be true to the subject matter. David Bowie simply mattered to me in a way almost no one else does.
Very few musicians who came up in the golden age of Rock and Roll have careers that span six decades. Rock’s basic premise is to live fast, die young and leave a pretty corpse. Bowie himself explained his situation as quite different from most rockers, “It’s a struggle to understand how I am no longer 20. I don’t know anybody else that this has ever happened to. Most people they get to 20 and then they stay 20. It didn’t happen for me though, I just went on and on and on and suddenly I’m 56! So I have to write from this unique perspective of somebody who never stopped being 20, but I went on. Isn’t that weird?” Being cool at 20 is pretty easy, but being cool in your 50s is damned near impossible — ask my kids.
In truth, Bowie’s musical success (27 studio albums) stems largely from the fact that he never settled into a genre or rested on his laurels. The King of Glam Rock went to Harlem to record a disco album with a number of non-rock singers including a kid named Luther Vandross. He recorded a Christmas song with Bing Crosby because his mom liked Bing. He did some movies (“The Hunger” remains the best vampire movie that doesn’t have Dracula himself in it) and theatre in between tours and recording sessions. And he painted.
Not all of his stuff was amazingly brilliant. “The Laughing Gnome” remains one of the most embarrassing novelty tracks ever recorded. He himself was disappointed in the album “Never Let Me Down,” and his Tin Machine project wasn’t bad, but it seemed that he had made a move that made no sense by pretending he wasn’t an established solo artist. But these pale into insignificance with his massive successes.
The trouble with popular music, of course, is that the fans are largely cretins and barbarians. What is popular, more often than not, is the lowest common denominator. People are, not to put too fine a point on it, uncultured idiots. Bowie himself had a sense of this in turning down both a CBE and a knighthood from the British government; Whitehall wouldn’t know decent rock if it bit them in their striped-trousered arses. So the best measures of an artist who has enjoyed the acclaim of the hoi polloi are time and those other artists whom he has influenced. Simply put, will anyone be listening to his work in 10, 50, 100 years from now? And who borrow (steal shamelessly) from his work?
Time will tell as the saying goes, and I don’t expect to be around to find out if Bowie’s work is still played in 2116. But the fact that Nirvana re-recorded “The Man Who Sold the World” in 1993, 23 years after Bowie released it, says something about his timelessness. Beck did “Sound and Vision.” Smashing Pumpkins did a version of “Space Oddity,” which an astronaut also recorded on the International Space Station. White Stripes did “Moonage Daydream” TV on the Radio and Karen O. have recorded “Heroes.” My Chemical Romance issued their recording of “Under Pressure”in collaboration with The Used, just as Bowie recorded the original with Queen. In short, much of the music is standing the test of time, and the people who are choosing to record his work are, themselves, established as first-class creative musicians.
There really isn’t a good way to end this piece because I would prefer not to have had occasion to have written it in the first place. What an artist has died in him — nostro artifex maximus, our great artist.