The last thing the world needs this week is another Bowie tribute. Least of all from me. I didn’t know him when he still had aspirations of working in musical theatre in the ’60s, I wasn’t present in the Hansa Tonstudio during the making of Low, I don’t have a story about his reclusive New York life, and he certainly didn’t cite me as one of the influences on Blackstar (although I was pretty excited when I read that Scottish hermits Boards of Canada were). I wouldn’t even call myself an ardent Bowie fan. I have literally no authority to pass comment on his life or career.
So instead of weighing up his contribution to popular culture, or offering an analysis of how his celebration of difference inspired a generation of outsiders to make art, I’m mainly curious about one thing: why his death inspired such widespread and heartfelt grief for people, like me, like the vast majority of us, who had no personal connection to him at all.
Like most people in the UK, the news reached me as I was sleepily lifting another spoonful of cereal towards my mouth on Monday morning. I was barely paying attention to whatever the BBC news presenters were talking about when they paused – in that way they do – and said something like, “And we’re just receiving some breaking news… According to a statement from his family, the rock star David Bowie…”
And at that point my slumber evaporated, my spoon hovered uncertainly as my brain tried to process a new world, one without David Bowie in it. It floored me, but like everyone else I just internalised my shock and sadness, and went about the necessary Monday morning rituals.
When I said earlier I wasn’t an ardent Bowie fan, that’s only in the sense that I didn’t grow up with his music; it wasn’t instilled in my subconscious from car journey tapes, it didn’t play any major role in my teenage years, and I’d never seen him live. I think I can explain this by the fact that the time I was probably forming my music taste, the 1990s, coincided with Black Tie White Noise and Outside, hardly Bowie’s zenith. He barely registered on my radar, at a time when Noel and Damon and Jarvis were the only show in town.
It was during my student days that I first made any meaningful connection to his music – largely through impulsive purchases of CDs from Fopp’s £5 wall – and found in his late ’70s work some of the most thrillingly original, path-finding creative alchemy I’ve ever heard on record. Later, when I finally had enough disposable income to buy a Hi-Fi system, Low was one of the first vinyl records in my collection.
That album, to me, is an extraordinary achievement, the sound of Bowie at the peak of his powers, elevated to even greater heights by the musical minds of Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. From the daring instrumental opener Speed of Life to the “blue blue electric blue” of Sound and Vision to the bracing, Eastern European grandeur of Warzsawa, it has the kind of sublime beauty of an Alpine peak – resolute, majestic, pure.
OK, this is in danger of becoming just another tribute, so back to the original line of thought. Why did Bowie’s death hit us so hard?
There are probably limitless answers, but here are mine:
- He defined himself, artistically at least, as The Man Who Fell to Earth. We loved to believe that he wasn’t quite of this world, so why should he have to live by the depressing rules of mortality that govern the rest of us?
- He lived up to one of his most popular songs: a hero, and not just for one day. The way he came across in interviews, and in anecdotes told by friends, suggested no hint of arrogance (correct me if I’m wrong), which is extraordinary when you think about his talents. He seemed to care about helping up and coming artists, he was a genuine polymath and intellectual (his 2013 reading list proves this), he was constantly restless and groundbreaking in his creative vision, and of course he turned down a CBE and knighthood. Those are all heroic qualities in my book.
- He had just released one of the best albums of his career. And I mean that. Blackstar is no Low, but it’s also not the kind of record you expect from a 69 year old; it’s brimming with interesting lyrical fragments, musically it’s so much more than the pure jazz indulgence some initially feared when they heard Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), and while it dips midway, the title track, Lazarus and the (now) heart-breaking album closer, I Can’t Give Everything Away, are up there with his very best. How could the mind behind such an intense, vital, brilliant work of art expire within days of its release? That was a (perhaps silly and naive) question that was playing on my mind on Monday morning.
I have no idea if you felt the same, but this is my best attempt at explaining why Bowie’s death had the effect it had on me, when most celebrity deaths leave me either completely indifferent or close to that. Over the past five days the chance to read so many of the stories from his collaborators (this was one of the best), and to revisit his music at length, has taken the edge off this sadness.
Despite what some commentators have said this week (and there are always a few who love to rail against the prevailing wind, no matter the issue), there’s no shame in mourning someone you’ve never met. Public grief has become a problematic, disputed and sometimes unsavoury topic lately, but when that evolves into a widespread celebration of an incredible life, then it has some worth.