David Bowie – an older man’s view

11 Jan

I’d been listening on and off all day to tributes from the great and good, but tops for me was a barmaid this evening at the Norfolk Arms in Ringinglowe. “No one had a bad word to say about him”, she said as she pulled me a pint.

I got home to this FB comment by Carin:

Yes, you can be a human being and, yes, you can be successful, creative, mesmerizing, thoughtful and provocative without stomping all over people and leaving them in shreds. My world, and this world, will be so much more empty without him.

January 12. Thinking that was me talked out on the matter I went to bed, only to wake up with more to say. I was not too young to choose  Bowie who, half a generation older than me and half a generation younger than my war baby heroes, hadn’t milestoned my boyhood with his hits. I was in my late teens in ’69 when he topped the charts with Space Oddity – only to fade for a while from view, just as Springsteen would do a few years later. Next thing I noticed was Hunky Dory, a work of unusual brilliance as any fool could see.

In the decades to follow its creator went from strength to strength, from self invention to self reinvention. But I kept only half an eye on him. No question: had I been born ten to fifteen years later he, not Lennon or Dylan, would have lit up and guided my childhood and adolescence. Since I wasn’t, I admired him at a distance, aware of how good he was but seeing him as not really my bag. Classy though he and his music were, his lyrics – and for all my love of melody and harmony, it’s always for me been in the end about the words – struck me as clever rather than deep; they didn’t explore the human condition as my rock idols (and his) had.

But yesterday, with half an ear to a radio switched on most of the day, I got with the message. Look at this clip of the man in Tokyo delivering Rock ‘n Roll Suicide. Half way in, see how he first swivels his guitar one hundred eighty degrees then puts it down altogether. Anyone else doing that – the artist known as Prince excepted – would look pretentious or corny. Bowie looks great.

Bowie didn’t explore the human condition through his lyrics; not really. As Major Tom or Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or Man Who Fell to Earth & Sold the World, Thin White Duke or Dying Lazarus, he was  the human condition. He was  the message; was  the work of art. Everything this courteous and wittily reflective man did spoke of style, innovation and dazzling chutzpah  and there’s been nobody, nobody, remotely like him.

11 Replies to “David Bowie – an older man’s view

  1. Shocked to hear, in an emailed response to this post, that Bowie had in 1976 said that ‘Britain is ready for a fascist leader … I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.’

    I gather he swiftly recanted, blaming addiction and telling Melody Maker in 1977 it stemmed from being “out of my mind, totally, completely crazed” at the time. He’d have to have been. Whatever their real beliefs, any superstar in their right mind – though you could argue that’s an oxymoron given the extraordinary bubble and rarified air these legends live and breathe – would know such a remark to be, well, rock ‘n roll suicide.

    To me its a stain. An indelible one, if only because everything such people do and say is a matter of public record, but a small one all the same, made forty years ago and not hard to overlook in the wider scheme of things.

    • Hallo Steel City Scribe (Phil?). A Sheffield friend (Geff) forwarded me your blog. I’m Patrick, from Chesterfield (though I left there aged 7). Aged 13 in 1977, I heard Bowie’s fascist leanings angrily cited by the movements I marched with in Nottingham – Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. But over the years, I’ve realised that it isn’t the duty of artists to be politically correct. In fact, they’re must useful to us when they force us to confront some of our own moral hypocrisies in uncomfortable, unexpected ways. In some sense now, I see Bowie’s fascist delusions (as he himself later declared them) to have been a natural artistic consequence of standing upon a stage and being worshipped by so many people (who must surely share some responsibility for putting him up there!). The parallels with Hitler at Nuremburg must’ve seemed inescapable to the first wave of rock gods surveying their fans, especially since all postwar Brits grew up with a morbid interest in the Nazi phenomenon. Young Bowie was just a participant observer who reflected honestly on the bandwagon he then had the good sense to jump off. Consider: if each and every human ego is your equal, but you have thousands of them screaming in front of you that you alone are sensationally different, it’s gonna mess with your head (think of the wonderful balcony scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – “We’re all different!” “I’m not!”). The fact that Bowie chose at least twice in his career to derail it for getting too big speaks to me of a fundamental humility underpinning much of his art (isn’t that why he could touch so many down-to-earth people with his pretentions?). As an older man too, watching the eulogies on TV yesterday, I couldn’t help wishing they’d shut up about the brief cult of Ziggy, and focus instead on the far more interesting communications Bowie gave us as his art – and he with it – matured. But hey, that’s because punk, Ziggy’s antithesis, was my pop-political coming of age. 30 years later, I’m posting this because your musings struck a chord with me in many ways. I too worried about that flirtation with fascism. But I think Bowie outgrew the brief stain. My fondest thought right now is of his wonderful bemusement at being much later offered a knighthood, and his stated reason for turning it down: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.” A far better political epitaph for an older man!

      • Thanks for this Patrick. I totally concur. In the same vein, are we to forego the funniest writer in English Literature because a very silly PG Wodehouse did a spell as Hitler’s useful idiot?

        Just as I hadn’t known about the fascist thing, I didn’t know about the declined knighthood either. (So WTF, some might ask, am I doing writing about Bowie at all then?) But the words you cite express perfectly what I had in mind when I spoke of “this courteous and wittily reflective man”.

        Best, Phil

  2. I first heard the strains of ‘Changes’ as I walked over the bridge on my way to a ‘disco’ in the lower refectory at Sheffield University, (some time in the 19th or 20th Century I guess). It was just a snatch of a song, but I knew then that I was hearing something entirely new, an experience that. if you’re lucky, only happens a few times in a lifetime. It had happened with Love’s ‘Forever Changes’, then with ‘Abbey Road’. I didn’t become a lifelong fan though, Bowie’s output was prodigious and, for me, he never again reached the ecstatic heights of ‘Hunky Dory’.

    No, he wasn’t a profound observer of the human condition. As for the fascist business, no one in their right mind takes seriously a pop star’s musings on political philosophy. It seems to me that in order to gain a bit of public relations gravitas, a few column inches, an artist who takes himself seriously is almost obliged to make a few extreme right-wing pronouncements, rapidly followed by a retraction, sincere or otherwise. Morissey, comes to mind. It’s not important, we’re not after all talking about Heidegger. And don’t you think that ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ is a great song?

    • Funny you should mention Forever Changes, Sam. Watch this site’s Tune of the Day slot tomorrow …

      I agree with you about not taking seriously a rock star’s musings on politics and am minded of a comment in Albert Goldman’s brutally one-sided but insightful “Lives of John Lennon”. In an interview for a British paper Lennon had said, “I guess we [the Beatles] are bigger than Christ now”. No one paid any attention till, months later, a US radio station picked up on the remark. The rest is history: Mississippi Burnin’, with the Fab Four’s records as fuel. Goldman noted that your uptight, middle class and middle aged Brit couldn’t care less what John Winston Lennon thought. In America, well, they take their celebrities – and, in the deep south, their religion – a little more seriously.

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