As obviously evinced from the many, many posts dedicated to him on my blog, I absolutely adore David Bowie, and his life, music and death have all, in turn, had a profound impact on my life.
[More on that here.]
Today, I covered his iconic hit, Space Oddity.
Have a listen here:
Today, a normal Monday. Many of us woke up, went to work, listening to the man on our commute.
Two days ago, Blackstar. A seminal album for the ages, just as every single one of his others had been. Like many others, I enjoyed it, replayed it, enjoyed it again.
Two days ago, I was in a tattooist’s chair, having Aladdin Sane permanently etched into my clavicle in ink.
Sat down at work and got onto my laptop, got through some work, and logged on to Facebook.
Like all of us who are now utterly shattered, I read that David Bowie was no more.
I immediately called up a close friend who loves the man as much as I do. I spoke to him. “It’s not true.”
Both voices shaking. Neither wanting to believe.
Later, confirmation. From his son. That the great man was gone. No more. Just like that, snuffed out in an instant.
It wasn’t in an instant for him, or for Duncan, or Iman, or his daughter.
18 months is a long, hard fight, and in a sense it’s better that it was not longer.
But this was a loss the world was not, has not been, would never have been ready for. How can the immortal Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, just leave?
My brush with Bowie began in my teens, when I first heard Life on Mars. It blew my mind in ways that I still remember today. Every bit revelatory, every bar of music, every single word of the lyrics touched my soul in a way that is truly indescribable and still, even using every word in existence, every emotion we know of, is somehow not enough.
It was the freakiest show.
Like a starved man who had tasted his first morsel of food, I, in my Teenage Wildlife, devoured his music. Lapped it up. Every single piece of it.
Each album brought out nuances, subtleties in music that one may have never believed existed. Themes and motifs all the writers of the world may not have been able to come up with even put together.
Every album behind a mask, behind a character – or perhaps, written by it. The young, hollowed out Aladdin Sane wrote of himself, of Ladies Grinning Soul, with pianos that sounded like flamenco guitar.
The lyrics inspired even the least creative of minds to conjure up images they may never have seen. Lady Grinning Soul. A tall woman by a piano in a bar, perhaps, her body shrouded in mystery and feathers, her eyes afire as she held a microphone.
Who knows if that is the image he intended. But it was always the one it brought to my mind. It’s one that is vivid, as if it were in front of my eyes just now.
Drive In Saturday made me want to fall in love. Hard. And hold someone close, and kiss them harder. And not let go.
And know what it was like to hold them as we both fell away, tired, sated and still at peace.
It’s absolutely one of my favourite songs to this day, and I’m playing it as I write this just now.
A song, an album that opens parts of you you didn’t know existed.
To anyone who is reading this, please, just go, turn out the lights, and play Aladdin Sane. An album for the ages if there ever was one.
He covered Pink Floyd, The Beatles, his own friends – the Stones. He did the Kinks and did them beautifully.
But his sheer capacity for songwriting – across genre, subject, lyric, music, instrument, absolutely anything – cannot even be described as monumental. Bigger than the ever-expanding universe, even. For a slow, flamenco-meets-piano Lady Grinning Soul, there was a Starman.
For a Starman, there was an Ashes to Ashes.
For every poignant song that could evoke tears at a moment’s notice, there was a Kooks, written for his son, about going to school and being a normal father. No, scratch that, not a normal father, a wonderful one.
It made me want to be able to come home to my own dad and laugh with him as I ran home from school, and in a sense, as I grew older, I did sometimes have my mother to be able to sit after school with as we watched TV together, and I’ll cherish those memories forever.
Before Aladdin Sane came The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Written from the point of view of an earth-visiting Alien. AKA David Bowie himself. A truly otherworldly being. Not human, not religiously divine.
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman.
In my darkest, most suicidal days, I overplayed Quicksand over and over again. And the Bewlay Brothers, as I imagined my life gladly slipping away from me, wanting to end whatever pain I was going through. And even then, in that darkness, those songs were things of sheer and utter beauty and nothing else.
The album was also special to me in that the first song I ever performed in public, for an actual audience, was a little ditty named Moonage Daydream. I’ll be a rock and rollin’ bitch for you, David.
The memory of walking into that dim light as my friend Laura set up a stool and microphone for me, announced me in and allayed my jittery nerves, that memory is so vivid.Adjusting a microphone for me, and a microphone for my guitar as the low screeech of the feedback echoed.
The smell of beer, good and bad, the low hum of what was perhaps a semi-interested audience that cheered me on as I sang and played on, and then it never stopped.
Memories of some of the best times of my life have become inextricably tied to David Bowie, to his music, to his legacy. The first time I ever tried to smoke a cigarette, I was listening to Life on Mars, and to this day it is reminiscent of that breeze, that smell, that burning ash.
I then introduced one of my young, closest friends to it, and she fell in love with it too.
Letter to Hermione, a wonderful gem off Space Oddity, holds a special place in my heart. On a date with a man I had fallen deeply for as a young woman years ago, he held my hand and sang it to me on a beach in the heat of mid-day and my young, impressionable mind that had never known love, opened up and soared, and melted into his arms.
I spoke to that man this morning as I cried, and he did not want to believe it either.
Even teenage me, wanting to die, holding a swiss knife to my wrist, listened to Quicksand over and over again, with no belief in or love for myself, and still somehow was able to enjoy the music with every fibre of my being, sink into the lyrics that spoke so deeply to my soul I felt like the man, the musician knew me, knew my fight, as I struggled to deal with being unloved, alone, bullied and hurt.
As I finally took to fiction, each story a cathartic experience, those were inspired by Bowie too. A homeless young girl (with the mousy hair). A Major Tom, who lost his mind.
Wanting truly to know the happiness that came from love, I listened to Kooks. Of a father who just wanted to put his son in the car and drive him around when homework got too much. A simple melody was Kooks, and still inspired so much happiness.
Lady Stardust. A transvestite. Playing into Bowie’s beautifully fluid gender idols. Androgyny. The male. The female. All one, and one with each other. And it didn’t matter if you were gay, straight, male or female. You were attracted to him, in love completely with a man, a being, walking music himself.
And he reinvented himself, year after year after year. After year.The Thin White Duke. Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.
The Next Day was a new Bowie. The talent of and genius of old. The music of now. And his old personae came out to play.
Ever the consummate actor, Bowie was not just prolific in film as the iconic Nikola Tesla, whom he portrayed in The Prestige – perhaps his most well-known film role to date, but as the Man Who Fell to Earth (a must watch, if you have not already). Of Jareth the Goblin King, with a beautiful voice and a just-as-beautiful bulge.
An innovator in music, in writing in film, in truly every sense of the word was David Bowie.
And if you’ve ever watched his interviews, he was devastatingly funny (and handsome), disarmingly charming, honest, baldly open, just himself. And you couldn’t help but fall completely in love.
Only three days ago, Blackstar came out. His video, his song. Lazarus. The biblical character whom Jesus resurrected.
The musical character, the man, the enigma, the riddle, the genius. Not a mortal at all, but resurrected in death to live for all eternity, just as that final video.
In a way, it is just as well that 18 months of hard-fought suffering have come to an end, but it is the sheer loss that we, as fans, as lovers in our heads, find it hard to come to terms with.
I guess we all just thought he was immortal. And in so many ways, he is, and he will be.
Now one with space and time and the energy of the universe, there really is a Starman out there somewhere.
Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky.
Last year (2013 is ‘last year’ now), this genius released his latest album.
Musician. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, saxophonist, a brilliant, brilliant actor, sex object, teen-and-adult idol and Goblin King extraordinaire, David Bowie, is 67 today. Fifty years since the man has been making music and it only gets better.
Although most non-Bowie listeners will know him by ‘Ground Control to Major Tom‘ (which is actually Space Oddity, thank you very much!) his debut album was the eponymous David Bowie, released in 1967. For those who have heard a lot of Bowie’s later stuff – Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Life on Mars (the usual suspects), David Bowie will sound rather unfamiliar. Less surrealist and folksy than the more mature Bowie-image that has come to be legend, a number of songs on the album are very 60s and represent London [London Boy, Maid of Bond Street (one of my personal favourites on the album)]. Love You Till Tuesday is wonderfully candyflossy, youthful, and in all honesty, downright adorable. A simple melody from a lover to the one he loves, about how smitten he is. The simplicity of the melody and the lyrics make you fall in love with them.
While David Bowie might seem unlike Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, or even the David Bowie of today, it was not as detached as it seems. A special Bowie skill, one that one sees in very few musicians today, is the ability to paint extremely vivid, almost tangible pictures with palpable emotions, telling entire stories in song (or in Bowie’s case, extend characters through them, even).
This is evident in Come and Buy my Toys, which has simple lyrics, some beautiful folksy fingerpicking in the background. Seemingly innocuous, innocent lyrics paint deeper, darker, sadder pictures than those that are apparent. Maid of Bond Street paints a picture of glitzy London, of an actress on the train from Paddington to Oxford Circus (while on that journey myself, I hummed the tune and grinned to myself. The man looking at me must have assumed I was a lunatic. Oh well), but in a few lines shows the emptiness of her life, of life itself.
Macabre images that one would see in later Bowie work (certain songs on Hunky Dory, a fair number on Aladdin Sane) began cropping up early on – a prime example is Please Mr. Gravedigger, just pure vocals and sound effects – the rain in the background. While nothing like it melodically, the lyrics are reminiscent of a beautiful song by a certain Paul McCartney, released only a year prior.
We Are Hungry Men steps into extremely dark realms, all the while beneath a melodic exterior that seems quick, rhythmic, and perhaps incongruous with its lyrics that allude to cannibalism and explicitly refer to infanticide and slaughter. He talks of a messiah, a persona that will crop up in his later music as well, along with the idea and nature of being detached from humanity, an observer from up above – whether an alien or an astronaut, an otherwoldly being, or just a starman.