Cynics may react world-wearily to the run of hastily assembled montages and heartfelt tributes which follow a famous person’s death. These often seem whipped up too easily –social media gesturing which will move on swiftly enough. Today though it feels entirely right to drop this cynicism, and to take stock of the life and work of an enormous cultural figure.
I woke up for work this morning with a few messages on my phone from friends telling me the news that David Bowie had died from cancer at the age of 69. Perhaps it was the time of day, but the news felt oddly off-kilter. Bowie had been discussed on the radio and in the papers only days before with coverage of his new album Blackstar, (a work which was largely greeted with muted approval from the press, but which has seemed to shift in weight and resonance in light of his death). Only a few days ago it had felt to me as though Bowie was enjoying a potentially long and fruitful dotage; that he could easily keep producing music like this for decades to come – slowly, at his own pace, but always of the highest quality. I think I took him for granted.
It’s sometimes said with regard to the great rock stars of the post-war period, that the world is waiting for them to die. That there is a disturbing disconnect between our visions of their legendary youth (as well as the music born out of that youth), and the worn, aged looks which parody their once-fresh faces.
Bob Dylan fans have felt inconvenienced by the fact that he’s had the audacity to continue on well beyond the age of 27 – stubbornly living a long and contradictory life – and that he hasn’t allowed his own legend to take over. Similarly, we marvel at the strange vision of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, now in their 70s, still performing essentially the same music that they were making when they were teenagers.
This has never been the case with Bowie, and perhaps this is why at some level his loss was such a shock. I think it’s fair to say there was something ageless in his whole attitude, and in his music. He’s always been one step ahead of his own legend, always able to manipulate his own mythology to service his new material, in a way that none of the other defining acts of his era could even get close to imitating.
What made Bowie so powerful, and so great in the end, was that his chameleon-like indefinability gave him a unique appeal and purchase on his audience. Anyone could be a Bowie fan, and anyone could posses a sense of him and his music which was unique to themselves.
For me personally, it was never the costumes and the flamboyance I responded to most, as glorious as all of that was. What I always found so alluring and powerful within Bowie’s music were the vulnerability and emotional clarity there in his melodies and his best vocal performances. Though Bowie’s public persona is defined by its obscurity – by his use of characters and poses and masks to disguise himself – there is always latent in his music a rare emotional power and intensity. Behind the mannerisms and the stagecraft there is always a depth and intelligence which shone through. Now he’s gone, let’s never take that for granted.