It is strange to think of him as dead. He’s the big brother who never stopped bringing home the best stuff. He’s the rockstar who beat the Faustian pact that all those other guys made with youth in the 1960s – as his price, the devil was to make that lot look a bit silly. But not Bowie, who was instead developing the potential for rockstar cool to persist well into old age.
That means a lot to a lot of people. Blues artists, jazz artists, painters, poets and playwrights all get to grow old; their schtick isn’t as wedded to what sociologist Simon Frith calls the passions “of the proletarian weekend” to the degree to which pop and rock are intimately bound.
I wonder why his death made me cry so much. He’s just a millionaire entertainer who lived for nearly his allotted “three-score-and-ten”. Big deal. There’s worse stuff happening. And I didn’t cry when, say, Tony Benn died. He was cool.
No – I realise that I’m crying for myself, because like countless others David Bowie opened up a way of thinking, being and enjoying for me. So knowing he’s not around means that I’m feeling a bit more alone. Like the best kind of best friend has gone. The one who reminded you regularly of how good things could be. Funny how the most fractured, unpredictable character in culture became our North Star in a mad world.
Obits will chorus the display-cabinet litany of re-invention and costuming, but that never grabbed me about Bowie. I loved him as a singer and writer – and I think his music sounds like Bowie no matter what clothes he was wearing. Madonna reinvents herself, so does Kylie, Steve Coogan and Michael Portillo. These days changing your clothes a lot is encouraged and we’re all a bit “post-modern” and actively branding ourselves.
So enticing, so inviting
Bowie was more like an explorer who would return with new spices and amalgams from a different margin of human activity. He was a fan of humans and I recall his friend Coco Schwab saying that he was the world’s best museum companion. I think that’s the thing that reflects out of his work; he loved through curiosity and he loved people.
But he didn’t write love songs. Ever noticed that? I wish he did more songs like Wild Is The Wind (what a singer), but he didn’t write them. Instead he did something more remarkable.
David Bowie’s songs spoke to the isolation, psychosis and anxieties of the late modern era and he made it sound like a sexy raucous art carnival. He always sang as if he knew something you didn’t, but that was OK, he was letting you in on it. He was the guy that put the heart into cool – but somehow he made it more than coldness.
Bowie didn’t write love songs – instead he took his love of art and people and put that to music. And in a way, Heroes is the greatest love song ever; a modernist, Everyman hymn to the daily empowerment of love – grinding and swaggering hedonistically in that sexy Bowie way.
Too late to be grateful
Sexy is difficult for men. Ever noticed? There are not many pathfinders out there. Last decade’s sexy guy always looks ludicrous; testosterone seems to have corrosive qualities. Bowie mastered the art of looking relaxed across the years and his frame was such that clothes hung from him rather than clung to him. He had become the archetype of English to the bone – a Byronic gentleman with a saturnine allure.
Yet he managed this while also preening and shrieking and high-kicking in tights, singing operatically about dystopia and beings from outer space. That’s how you do it! I actually think some people are mostly born sexy (good genes) – but whether they learn poise or not determines the outcome. Sexy wasn’t problematic for David Bowie.
His hunger for world spiritualism and art would’ve made him well aware of his own mortality, and in many ways he was dancing with death all along. To Buddhists, peaceful death is the greatest achievement of all and it looks as though Bowie managed that, surrounded by the coolest people – film directors, supermodels and children who loved him.
Perhaps he was, consciously or unconsciously, storing himself in our collective hive-mind over time, cryogenically depositing himself in the songs and images of culture, preserved forever by cool and remembered as fun and generous by all the people who knew him. It’s strange to think of him dead. Maybe he isn’t.