David Bowie died of cancer yesterday aged 69. I’d like to pay tribute to him in some way.
Where on earth do you start with the legend that was and is David Bowie? You don’t, as he was not of this earth. His first hit was “Space Oddity” in 1969. At a time when people were writing hippy-dippy songs, Bowie was thinking of space travel and the future. Nobody else was doing what he was doing musically at the time. He truly was a visionary.
Despite that first hit, he struggled in the very early 70s to find another one. When he hit upon the persona of Ziggy Stardust, his fame exploded. “I’m going to be huge,” he said in 1972, “and it’s quite frightening in a way.” He went on to dominate the 70s the way Dylan had the 1960s. I can’t think of another performer who challenged himself and his audience as Bowie did, drastically deconstructing every successful look and sound and rebooting it with the next album. Something was popular? BOOM! He’d moved on to something else. Oh, you like that now? POW! He did it again. (Bowie said the one thing he hated journalists saying was: “You’re a chameleon that’s always ch-ch-changing.”) In an age of one-hit-wonder X-Factor wannabes, he looks even more of giant.
Nicolas Cage: “You have to stay uncomfortable. I learned that from David Bowie. I said, ‘How do you do it? How do you keep reinventing yourself?’ He said, ‘I just never got comfortable with anything I was doing.’ I knew those were words of wisdom from a great artist and I took those words seriously.”
My favourite Bowie story is the time he went to see Elvis Presley perform at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Bowie arrived late to his front row seat in full Ziggy Stardust gear as Elvis and the band were powering into “Proud Mary.” “He must have thought Mary had arrived,” Bowie joked. Yes, he was weird and wonderful, but people forget how funny he could be. (Just check out his “Chubby Little Loser” song from Extras with Ricky Gervais)
This is how he recalled writing the classic Life On Mars: “I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”
Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest performance of all-time at Live Aid. Bowie had to go on after them and he was still magnificent. That’s a true testament to how good he was.
It’s a cliche to say when someone famous dies that there will never be another like them again but it’s true in Bowie’s case. Not just because of his groundbreaking, daring abilities but also because the music business he became a superstar in during the 1970’s just doesn’t exist anymore. Albums were king then but not now with music sales dropping. Live touring is where the money is. If Bowie was starting out today, he would never be given the time or creative space to develop even one of his personas let alone the many he did (can you imagine One Direction ever tampering with their smash-hit formula as drastically as Bowie did even once? Nope, neither can I.) Nor would Bowie be given a chance to come back from less successful albums. Presently, if you’re not an instant success, you get dropped by your record label. The patience of executives and their belief in the artist is gone. Young Bowie in this world would have to lower himself to entering reality talent contests like X-Factor or American Idol where his baritone wouldn’t be appreciated. He would probably be eliminated early in favour of the glass-shattering screamers who tend to win. I can’t see how Bowie or anyone else could have a 47-year musical career starting in 2016. It’s all about making a quick buck and moving on to the next teeny-bopper sensation before the kids get bored.
“Who wants to drag their old decaying frame around until they’re 90 just to assert their ego? I don’t,” he said in 1977. He didn’t, he left us at 69 with a staggering, diverse body of work. Hard to believe one man came up with all that but he did. The world was lucky to have him as long as we did. Go, David, fly Starman beyond the bounds of time and space to your true place in the Heavens.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.