Tuesday 12 January 2016

Obituary: David Bowie 1947 – 2016

Goodbye Spaceboy... 

“As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I've got left?” – David Bowie

The news that David Bowie had died following and 18-month battle with cancer was just as out of the blue as his shocking return from retirement in 2013. The singer, musician, producer, actor, poet, painter, sculptor and all round polymath was ingrained firmly into the popular culture of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. His work transcended genres, pushed boundaries, experimented and played with conventions whether they be musical or cultural. No written tribute will ever truly be able to encapsulate the influence this man had on generation upon generation of artists and fans alike. Always at the forefront of every trend, reinventing himself perpetually. He was the ultimate chameleon, the ultimate mirror to mankind's post-modern evolution. He was, will forever be David Bowie.

Born David Jones in Brixton in January 1947, the boy that would become Bowie grew up in South East London gradually developing an obsession with rock 'n' roll, art and theatre. He played in bands throughout the 1960s as many other teenagers did. He painted, modelled, studied mime. He later admitted that he didn't quite know what he wanted to do, other than be known for something. After a few false starts he finally had a hit song in the form of 1969's 'Space Oddity'. The single seemed like it would be a one hit wonder for Bowie despite being followed by albums that would go on to be highly influential in their own right, as well as penning hits for several other artists.

Then came glam rock, and Ziggy Stardust was born. The national début of Bowie's new glamorous androgynous alien alter ego was on Top Of The Pops and thrust him into the living room of every house in the UK. The colourful Bowie with his arm draped over the shoulders of guitarist Mick Ronson as they performed the single 'Starman' from the album 'The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust' may seem tame by today's standards, but in a Britain where homosexuality had only been legal for a few years it was a shocking display of nonconformist sexual liberation set to infectious rock 'n' roll. Bowie and his band toured relentlessly with a show combining the conceptual story of the album with his previous songs, costume and make up changes, mime and thousands of screaming fans. It was a hit and Bowie never looked back.

Ziggy didn't last long. He was soon followed by characters such as Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack and The Thin White Duke. The characters enabled him to project his reality onto their fiction:

“As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs on stage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going on stage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.”

Bowie also didn't stick to his comfort zone and keep churning out glam rock as his peers would do. He embraced avant garde methods, kept an ear open to new sounds and an open mind to new ideas. He would go on to explore genres such as soul, art rock, krautrock, new wave, industrial, drum 'n' bass, and jungle to name a few. This would keep him in the public consciousness and ensure hit albums in every subsequent decade, re-introducing him to the next generation.

In addition to this he would keep on painting, and he would also find time to indulge his skills as an actor in films such as 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' (1976), 'The Hunger' (1983), 'Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence' (1983), 'Labyrinth' (1986), 'The Last Temptation Of Christ' (1988), and 'Basquiat' (1996). He would also see him gain critical acclaim as the title role of John Merrick in the Broadway production of 'The Elephant Man'.

His work schedule and personal demons led him to spiral into a cocaine addiction which saw Bowie thin and skeletal in the mid-1970s prompting an escape to Berlin in an effort to try and kick the habit. There he would collaborate with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop once again redefining the direction of popular music at the time.

On the morning of 11th January 2016, just days after the release of his latest album 'Blackstar' the news that David Bowie had died. His social media posted a short message stating:

“January 10 2016 - David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”

The world erupted into an outpouring of tributes that eclipsed any other star before. Everyone from the fans, to colleagues, peers and even governments paid their respects to him. Bowie's influence was truly global and was internalised by millions.

He himself was always incredibly modest about his work stating in an interview in GQ in 2002; “You know, what I do is not terribly intellectual. I’m a pop singer for Christ’s sake.”. But was always ready to make a joke about the absurdity of it all; “Fame itself… doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant.” - Q Magazine 1990.

Bowie has left us with a rich legacy that has and will continue to stand the test of time. He sold over 140 million albums and he has new music in the form of 'Blackstar', and was still working until his final hours. But just as sudden as his return had been it has been just as quickly taken away.

As long-time friend and producer Tony Visconti said in the press today: “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made 'Blackstar' for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”

On a personal note it was only on Sunday that I sat in the Hard Rock Café in Manchester, and on the wall behind me were three men’s suits. On the left a white suit worn by Liam Gallagher of Oasis, on the right a pinstripe suit worn by Elton John, and in the middle a teal suit that belonged to David Bowie. Of the three Bowie's kept drawing my eye, and not in an idle glancing way. I found that I kept turning myself to look at it. I had been there before and seen it, but this time I studied it intently.

If you haven't seen it, it is a double breasted, light teal suit with wide lapels and a few creases that looks unmistakable of its era. The kind of suit you'd see in a retro clothes shop and think that it would make a good costume. On its own it's just an ordinary suit like those next to it. But just by that association with Bowie, it became more. It was a fashion statement, a work of art, a relic of a bygone era. It evoked the piano strains of 'Life On Mars' and the over saturated colouring of it's music video. It evoked screaming fans in the Hammersmith Odeon as Ziggy retired. It was a grand and spectacular as the Glass Spider tour, and as intimate as the video for 'The Buddha Of Suburbia'. It was Bowie, encapsulated and crystallised in a fragment of his past. It was, more than any other item in there, a true relic of a genius.

David Bowie is survived by his wife Iman, his son Duncan, and his daughter Alexandria.

R.I.P David Bowie


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