About a strange young man named Bowie …
I hope everyone had a good holiday break and I send best wishes for 2016.
January has recently developed a habit of springing nasty surprises, and did it again this year with the death of David Bowie. I’ve been reflecting on this event and the response to it. Bowie has had a lot of coverage and I think on the whole this is merited. It is hard to think of a comparably major figure in British popular music from the late 60s / 70s who could compare in terms of influence. I’m not sure that the emphasis in his career on image and necessary reinvention has always been a good thing for popular music as music, but it has certainly had an impact.
For a few years in the early to mid-70s he made a lot of music I really enjoyed and most of it still sounds great. The songwriting on Hunky Dory is agile and intelligent (the title of this blog alludes to the LP’s song for Dylan); Ziggy Stardust was a blast; and Aladdin Sane a heady cocktail of apocalypse and decadence. There were some great singles too, such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’. I was too much into rock music at that time to have much sympathy for his swerve into plastic soul on Young Americans, but liked ‘Golden Years’ and very much ‘TVC15’. Much later I properly got into Station To Station. The Berlin period didn’t connect and neither did much of his music in the 80s, though ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was compelling in its haunting revisiting of Major Tom (and who could resist that sardonic, knowing voice answering the lead vocal at various points?).
Bowie was not a one-man band and some of his achievement depends upon the contributions of others. Mention should be made of the wonderful guitar riffs and tone that Mick Ronson brought to Bowie’s music. Even after all these years there is something still exciting about strapping on a Les Paul, clicking on the right distortion, and attacking the guitar parts on ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’ and ‘Jean Genie’. Dirty sweet glam riffola. I think also of producer Tony Visconti’s input.
Three other songs I’d mention: I’ve always loved the early ‘Letter For Hermione’. ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a song which brilliantly captures the generational divide between the 60s and the 70s the way ‘My Generation’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘San Francisco’ did in their time. One of Bowie’s greatest moments as a lyricist is the lines: ‘Well my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got off on that revolution stuff / What a drag … too many snags …’ The division runs right through the family.
One thing that I have not seen written about is that in 1972-73 rock critics were actually divided about Bowie specifically and glam rock generally. Some of them felt that this was a betrayal of the counter-cultural force of rock music. Glam was too show-bizzy and trivial and apolitical. The authenticity of rock was being undermined by artifice, by dressing-up, by pretence. You can see how a figure like Bowie pretending to be Ziggy Stardust would be a nexus point for this argument. Of course with hindsight we can see that certain aspects of glam were political, just in a different arena to the one the hippies had focused on.
The out-pouring of emotion for Bowie from those old enough to remember those days is also clearly about the way it reminds them (us) of our mortality. This generation has clung more to youth than early ones, and has had this reinforced partly by the recycling of albums from that era, and also by living in a culture in which youth remains everything. There is no counterbalancing force celebrating the second half of life. To us it feels as though there is something fundamentally wrong with a universe in which Bowie is not physically present. And we feel this at present even if he has meant little to us musically for a very long time.
I’ve left one song unmentioned, one which I blogged about in 2013: ‘Where Are We Now’. Much of what I’ve felt this week I felt on its release. Ironically, it is wonderfully authentic in its evocation of personal memories for Bowie and has a haunting video with it.