Gordon Campbell on David Bowie
Gordon Campbell on David Bowie
With hindsight, this last week must have been a race to get David Bowie’s final album Blackstar out – and reviewed – before his death overwhelmed how the album would be received. Gratifyingly, Blackstar came out last Friday on his 69th birthday, was treated entirely on its own merits, and received the best reviews of any Bowie album in the past 25 years before any inkling of Bowie’s terminal illness had become widely known. In the nick of time, Bowie’s final bow was managed without any reliance on the crutch of pathos.
That said, if the video for a track like “ Lazarus” was unsettling to watch beforehand – the opening lines are “ Look up here/I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can‘t be seen” – the track now seems utterly harrowing. For someone whose calling card was his theatricality, this depiction of Bowie locked in his final battle with his own mortality seems almost unbearably naked :
While the impulse is almost irresistible to treat Blackstar entirely as a farewell Valentine to his fans, the challenge will be to resist treating it too literally, and too specifically. If he was anything, Bowie was someone who made the literal ” Dear Diary” school of songwriting seem passé, and it would do him something of a disservice to regard this album as merely a death bed confessional. It is better seen as an invitation to look in the mirror of our own mortality and make the most of what we have before the final surrender. And besides, Bowie was always more about invitations – eg “Lets Dance” – than proclamations.
How do you possibly sum up a career like this ? Like Presley, the Beatles and Dylan - and they’re the only real comparisons – Bowie changed the way we listen to music, and his impact on the culture is just as important as the trove of great songs he created. Initially, not everyone embraced the ch-ch-changes he wrought. Among certain music fans, there’s always been a value placed on “authenticity” and “roots” and what’s taken to be the expression of real and direct emotion – whether that be in soul music, or in classic reggae or with the honest lunkhead likes of Bruce Springsteen – and Bowie just wasn’t that kind of artist.
I’m not saying his music wasn’t soulful or emotional ; but that his whole approach and delivery were different. Bowie was our first consciously post-modern rock star ; and initially, you either embraced his gender-blurring, genre-hopping, magpie tendencies or you treated his innate theatricality as a form of betrayal. And one that opened the door to all kinds of charlatans and lesser beings like Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter and Gary Numan. In the 1970s, Lou Reed was his main foil – Low vs Berlin, anyone ? - and yet even then, it had been Bowie and Mick Ronson who had co-produced the Transformer album that first gave Reed an identity and a career, post Velvets.
All of this is ancient stuff. We’ve all grown up now. We’re all now aware that we’re living in a postmodern world where art, gender, politics and morality are to be regarded as power constructs, and not taken as givens. The prevalence of that sense of “reality” may be Bowie’s real legacy. ( And parental advisory : it is still being stealthily promoted to the little ones, via Labyrinth.)
Lets not overlook the music. You can find “Sorrow” “Space Oddity” “Jean Genie” “Suffragette City” “Life on Mars” “Young Americans” etc etc elsewhere. Since last night, everyone has been busy compiling their own Bowie tracklists….and for me, “Sound and Vision” is the touchstone.
As for the theatricality….Mick Garson’s piano was hyper-prominent on the title track of Aladdin Sane and was a highlight also of the great, relatively overlooked “Lady Grinning Soul.”
For all the singularity of his vision, Bowie always worked well with other strong personalities – eg Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Mick Ronson, Giorgio Moroder - and with Nile Rodgers of Chic who was a key factor in Bowie’s dance pop phase of the early 1980s. Dylan, another chameleon, also knew where to go for the stimulation he needed, and he too, then made it his own. (From the same early 1980s period, “China Girl” was arguably Bowie’s worst single, complete with a video that trafficked - non-ironically- in every Asian gender stereotype in the book.) Also from the early 1980s, here’s the great track that Bowie contributed to the Cat People soundtrack. It became a bigger hit in New Zealand than anywhere else.
Finally – and typically – Bowie wrote his own interpretation into the final track on his last album. “ I Can’t Give Everything Away” contains this verse :
Seeing more and feeling
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
There’s a whole career – and attitude to life, and to death – in those first two lines. Right to the very end, David Bowie was more self aware and knowingly self critical, than any of his critics, or fans.