David Bowie is dead. Still doesn’t sound right, does it? Standing at the crossing this morning, waiting for the red man to be superseded by the green man, a student girl in her late teens stood on the other side of the road, bright scarlet hair; and there, in an instant, barely a minute after locking the front door, I see the influence of David Bowie as one of Ziggy’s grandchildren faced me across the traffic. She may or may not know, I thought, but without him she wouldn’t be there.
Flashback to 1974, wandering around the aisles in the novel new Asda superstore, leaving my parents to attend to the weekly shop as I seek out the comic racks; en route, I find myself drawn like a little iron filing to the magnet nestled in the record racks, and I come face-to-face with that face – side-by-side are ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, works of art in an age when the LP sleeve was the contemporary canvas. Accustomed to painted faces via ‘Top of the Pops’ regulars such as Roy Wood of Wizzard, Steve Priest from the Sweet and the rest of the Glam court jesters, I nevertheless knew this was something on another level; the radio hits were already being absorbed – ‘The Jean Genie’, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, even the much-maligned ‘Laughing Gnome’, all sung in that strange neo-cockney voice that could range from high-pitched scream to low-pitched growl – as the otherworldly spectre hovering over a culture I was too young to participate in was unable to stand still. By the time I had begun spending my pocket-money on seven-inch singles, he was in drag to promote ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ as a prologue to anticipating the coming wave of pretty things poised to conquer the charts that came via ‘Ashes to Ashes’.
Aged 15, I experienced the colossal commercial monster of ‘Let’s Dance’ in a year when Bowie’s influence on mainstream pop was at its zenith as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club were living out their adolescent Bowie fantasies on the world stage. His biggest period of sustained success for a decade inspired the canny cash-in of his former record label RCA, who reissued all of his 70s albums at an affordable price; I had an entire career ready and waiting for me to dive into and by doing so, I passed through a door that changed me forever and for the better. I wouldn’t be alone. The Punks, the New Romantics, and their bastard offspring the Goths, were all in his debt.
In 1983, I was mining a legacy that only stretched back fourteen years, yet there was enough richness in there to span a century. From acoustic folk to full-blown Metal, from Art School Glam to Plastic Soul, from synthesized soundscapes to endless isolated sub-genres that were never limited by labels, the variety was staggering. The restless artistic spirit rewards the devotee with an abundance of options and renders those who cling to a hit formula for life one-trick ponies who eventually subside into irrelevance. With Bowie, there was even an additional icing on the cake that proved just as influential for closet extroverts: for each musical about-turn, there was an accompanying visual one too.
The founder of the Biba fashion house, Barbara Hulanicki, once observed that British wartime and post-war rationing had left an entire generation malnourished, enabling them to mature into stick-thin clothes hangers ideal for the androgynous peacockery that Swinging London defined in the 60s and David Bowie remodelled in the 70s. Although he was born eighteen months after VE Day, Bowie grew up in a nation taking its time to recover from the conflict; both his older brother’s recurring mental illness that eventually led to his suicide and the stifling suburban conformity that the Jones family relocated to from dirty urban Brixton were factors that formulated his impatient oeuvre and contributed to his steady evolution from long-haired R&B ingénue to cosmic Leper Messiah, sprinkling stardust over a generation that had missed the 60s and cried out for their own heroes, escapist pied-pipers leading them out of the candlelit gloom of early 70s Britain to a divinely decadent parallel universe. Bowie, like his contemporaries Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart and Elton John, had been whispering Open Sesame for years, yet it took the abdication of The Beatles and the cold chill of a drastically different decade to create the climate that could facilitate the great breakthrough.
The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a pop culture supernova that the first sixteen years of this century have cowered in the shadow of. If the band that exemplify the supremacy of that supernova are The Beatles, the only comparable solo act in terms of a body of work whose influence stretches way beyond the parameters of its art-form is Bowie. Like Marilyn Monroe, Rudolph Nureyev or even George Best, Bowie was unique – an artist in a field of one, often imitated, never equalled. After all, these special people only come in ones and when they’re gone they aren’t replaced, for broken moulds, as with Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together again.
But we have the work; it’s still here even though its creator has gone, and it’ll still be here when we’re all gone too. Time may well flex like a whore and fall wanking to the floor, but he won’t erase that magic preserved on plastic. David Bowie is dead, but David Bowie simultaneously lives. And he always will.
© The Editor