The greatest popular musician of the past few decades has died this morning. David Bowie, for many – including me – the reason why it all made sense – is an incalculable loss to music, to the world in general and, of course, to those who knew and loved him. The achievements go without saying – we’ll always have the albums and the songs. But there was more. On a wet, grim Monday morning, with ‘Where Are We Now’ on, loudly, a few thoughts about the man formerly known as Davy Jones.
– He was GREAT. It’s something that is routinely said of so many people, but in Bowie’s case, it was actually true. He was an innovator in every single aspect of his life and work. Even when something didn’t work (the art was never up to much, and Tin Machine has rightly been confined to the dustbin of memory), he grinned, made a self-deprecating joke and moved on. And there was always something round the corner.
– He never lost it. I hope that the reaction to Blackstar was a comfort to him in his final days. Even if I preferred his ‘other’ comeback album, The Next Day, it represented an artist at the peak of his questing, penetrating journey to make sense of the world. And there are a few songs on it – the title track; Lazarus; Dollar Days – that I think will join the canon before very long. For an artist to have recorded a dozen indelible songs is a rare achievement. In Bowie’s case, I think that you have around 50, and that’s before you get onto the gems that people forget.
– He was hilariously funny, a surprisingly rare attribute in people that famous and talented. Just the other day, I was reading the Proust questionnaire, and his answers (while inevitably guarded) are genuinely laugh-out-loud amusing. ‘With which historical figure do you most identify?
– I was lucky enough to see him three-and-a-bit times. Manchester, 2o02 – ferocious, angry and intense (and that was just my neighbour) – probably the first time that I thought of him as a rock star rather than a slightly fey, camp musician – Hallo Spaceboy, I’m Afraid Of Americans and Let’s Dance were big, stomping monoliths of sound and vision. Wembley, 2003 – a longer, more introspective set, with a few end-of-pier moments (pretending to sulk when anyone sang along to the chorus of All The Young Dudes) but also encompassing high drama, such as his fantastic 1996 song ‘The Motel’. Isle Of Wight, 2004 – England had just lost a World Cup match, and the mood might have got fractious. But again managed, with a wonderfully inclusive and varied set, to lighten the mood, while still throwing in an extraordinarily dramatic Station To Station. Albert Hall, 2006 – for what it’s worth, his last performance in Britain. An utterly unexpected cameo at a David Gilmour concert, doing ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’. He was perfect for the former, and as for the latter, he was entirely wrong for it as written – far too dramatic and histrionic – but made it wonderful nonetheless. And that was my lot.
– At times, I loathe social media, for its snobbishness, bitching and cliquey-ness. But on days like today, it’s terribly comforting. There is no warmer feeling than the certain knowledge that you’re not alone, and that a 69-year old man from Brixton meant as much to them as it meant to you. And that, my friends, is the best feeling of all.
– Everything after 2004 has been, if you like, ‘extra time’. After the heart attack he suffered, rumours – rumours which, today, have sadly been proved correct – surfaced about cancer, dementia, what have you. And then he returned triumphantly and dramatically with The Next Day in 2013. I watched the peerless video for Where Are We Now imagining that he was very ill, and then was relieved to hear that he wasn’t. And then illness, that great leveller of us all, claimed him from the middle of 2014. And yet he wouldn’t give up. He recorded a new album – which now, of course, will be regarded entirely differently, and its lyrics pored over for significance and meaning – appeared in videos, and co-wrote a musical. While desperately unwell.
I shall miss him, and his music, so very much. As I know everyone reading this will. If you can love someone you never met, and now never will meet, then that is what I felt for the Starman, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke, and a man who two were lucky enough to call ‘Dad’. The only consolation is that he dies knowing how much people cared about him, and that, for any of us, is the only crumb of comfort we can hope to have at the end.
David Bowie, 1947 – 2016.