One of music’s most recent losses, David Bowie remains a celebrated icon of British culture, and an inspiration for the world through his music, his life and his art
For the last two years we have had comments like “Darling”, or “Can we carry your handbag” thrown at us. It just has to stop now”. A nervously smiling 17-year old Davie Jones was speaking in an interview with the BBC in 1964, representing the Society or the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men which he had recently founded. He would go on to produce 25 studio albums, act in films, represent the fashion and style of his age and bring difficult discussions into British living rooms. He would tread the envious tightrope between critical and popular acclaim by being light years ahead of the game, so much so that critic and commoner would have no option but to stare in awe of the spectacle before them in the form of a person. He would go on to become David Bowie. Bowie passed away in 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th album, Blackstar. From his first album in 1967, that’s half a century of active work, little of which was ever off target on the charts. Across his career, 140 million copies of his work set teenager bedrooms, MTV ratings and stage arenas alight, through different media, from vinyl records to streaming audio. Many awards and recognitions from Governments later, he would go on to refuse British knighthood simply because “I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for”. That was the power of David Bowie. But how did he do it? Through reinvention, of course. And honest, killer songs.
1969 marked his performance of Space Oddity at the Marquee Club in London. The spirit of the age was the space race, Russia and the commies against the US and the free-world. In this Bowie, a young Brit, wrote himself into the shoes of Major Tom, the star of six-minute story song, adored at one moment, lost to space another, but with mentions of love for God and wife. Man was in space with protein pills, but nothing much had changed. The song propelled Bowie to international fame, and continues to live on for decades, covered by artists around space and time, including International Space Station astronaut Chris Hadfield. What started off with Space Oddity would result in the invention of the Ziggy Stardust persona, which gave Bowie the freedom of detachment to express himself and his ideas on stage and through his music. Britain of the 70s was barely ready for Ziggy’s androgynous personality and ambivalent sexual leanings, but just because his music seemed so powerful and universally attractive, Bowie’s expression of such lifestyles brought their discussion into middle-class living rooms. This was music – not freakiness – that was compelling a propah nation to talk about matters other than the Queen or the weather.
The 80s brought with them new, industrial, non-rock sounds that immediately attracted Bowie, and the masses. He would go on to collaborate widely in this time, with Queen on Under Pressure, and with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, exchanging musical ideas and thriving. An on-stage heart attack would curtail his stage appearances, but he used this time to work on his craft as a painter, and appeared as an actor in pivotal roles, such as that of Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of the Christ, and as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Such talent, such vision, and such integrity of character that allowed him to play roles and characters, on stage, on screen and in life – maybe those should be remembered as the reasons he could create this body of work, that was played in space.