This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.
David Bowie in 2004 (Photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)

The relationship between British rock stars and America falls broadly into two camps. There are those that seek to curate and maintain a tradition—blues, folk, soul—and those that are so excited about everything they just want to have a go at all of it.

David Bowie, who died yesterday (January 10) after an 18-month battle with cancer, was that giddy enthusiast. For all that he became an icon himself, for all that he retained his mystique and his cool, for all that he was a visionary artist with enormous talent and an unmistakable voice, the touch-paper on his muse was always lit by whatever was going on, or more correctly, whatever was just about to be going on, and in the mid-20th century, almost all of it was going on in America.

That “let’s give it a go” excitement drove him to try all sorts of things without worrying what other people may think: to rewrite the lyrics to the song that became “My Way”; to learn mime and perform some for a nonplussed Andy Warhol; to produce key albums by his relatively unknown heroes and influences Lou Reed and Iggy Pop; to offer a definite hit song “All The Young Dudes” to the fading Mott the Hoople; to duet with Queen or with Bing Crosby; to work with Chic’s Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance after the disco bubble had burst; to perform at Freddie Mercury’s 1991 tribute concert and intone the Lord’s Prayer. This was not a man afraid of reaching out, or looking foolish.

It could be argued that he never gave himself time to really learn how to do the things he enthused about—in the way that his fellow British rockers learned the blues—and while that viewpoint misses his talent as a synthesist of ideas, if it’s true, it is thanks chiefly to his short attention span. This perfectly suited a post-television, post-’60s era in which there is simply too much stuff going on to process at a deep level, and the idea of creating a lineage or a story out of it becomes almost overwhelming. That’s what his most apocalyptic songs—”Life on Mars?,” “Five Years”—seem to be about. Mind you, it’s not always easy to tell what any Bowie song is really about, besides dislocation in general, but that fractured attention comes up again and again in the cracks between those opaque lyrics (especially the ones doctored with the infamous “cut-up” technique).

The wonderful thing about this, and Bowie’s already otherworldly persona, is there’s no sense of exclusion to his music. His songs aren’t there to appease fellow purists, or even to continue a tradition. He arrived from the suburbs, feeling rootless and unexamined, and started making culture out of the bits and bobs that seem to speak to him the loudest at that moment. Often those bits and bobs were at the fringes of artistic endeavor, because that’s often where the artists who express their feelings from the floor up through their shoes tend to reside. And it’s that kind of primal expression of character Bowie was constantly seeking, the unique voices like the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Jonathan Richman, William Burroughs, Pixies, even dear old Anthony Newley.

Even if he hadn’t come on like a pansexual alien, that would still leave a LOT of room for people whose personal stories had never been explored by mainstream media to feel welcomed. As it was, his very appearance on British TV singing “Starman” was enough to offer hope and support to countless disaffected teenagers trying to work out who they were, including future stars like Boy George, Marc Almond and most of the punk and new wave generation:

In his later years, with the development of alt. culture and the indie aesthetic (both using that same magpie template to dig out buried treasures), Bowie felt like a supportive and benevolent force, despite his almost total absence from public life. This silence was one was one of the smartest tricks anyone could pull off in the age of social media and constant comment, it made him one of the lost voices he once went digging for.

Consequently, his return to music in 2013 with The Next Day felt like a groundshaking cultural event, and highly emotional, as if a lost relative had come back into the fold. What could possibly top that? Only tragedy. His last album Blackstar came out on Friday, an immaculate three days before the announcement of his death.

It is either riddled with intimations of mortality, or that’s how those opaque lyrics now seem with the benefit of context. The song “I Can’t Give Everything Away” being particularly on the nose:

“I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout’s hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

I can’t give everything, I can’t give everything away

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

I can’t give everything away.”

Fundamentally, David Bowie was a man who came from nowhere, whose cultural contribution was as much an act of careful archeology as it was heaven sent inspiration. He should be remembered as the pop star whose talent and success offered safe passage and hope for anyone who hadn’t managed to fall in step with the rest of society. That’s why his death has left so many people feeling like they’ve lost something deeply important and personal.

Read More
Filed Under: David Bowie
By Fraser McAlpine