David Bowie

A hero forever

Print edition : February 19, 2016

David Bowie launching the United States leg of his worldwide tour called "A Reality Tour", at Madison Square Garden in New York, on December 15, 2003. Photo: KATHY WILLENS/AP

David Bowie (1947-2016) was the voice of the misfit and the misunderstood.

THE shape-shifting conjuror of the music world is dead. For nearly 50 years, he entertained, intrigued and enchanted music lovers spanning generations all over the world; and every time he transformed himself and embraced a new form musically as well as artistically, he would alter the face of popular culture in all its great frivolity and profundity. Now, there will be no more new David Bowie albums to look forward to, and already the world seems a little less exciting.

No one expected it. No one saw it coming. When the British music legend and cultural icon David Bowie died on January 10 after a secret battle with cancer, the world was stunned. Even in death Bowie did not fail to surprise. Just two days before his death, on his 69th birthday, he released his 27th studio album, Black Star, a dark, haunting masterpiece, which, his fans only realised later, was a parting gift to them from an artiste who never had failed to astonish and inspire them and give them a new perspective to art and life. “His death was no different from his life—a work of art,” said Tony Visconti, the man who produced some of Bowie’s classic albums.

One of the most original and path-breaking creative artistes, Bowie’s influence on popular culture has been so immense and diverse that it is impossible to bracket him in any particular genre. He was a music legend who repeatedly changed the course of popular music; a fashion icon who made the strange chic and the weird acceptable; one who was hailed as a cultural messiah but made shattering impact socially and politically with his music and his personality. He was an artiste for the ear and the eye, who, by relentlessly pushing boundaries and challenging rigid social perceptions, helped change the way people saw the world. He also sold 140 million records in doing so.

On the news of his death, the German government paid tribute to Bowie with a message posted on the official Twitter account of the German Foreign Office, which said: “Goodbye David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” Attached to the message was a link to a video of Bowie performing one his most famous songs “Heroes”. The song is about two lovers, separated by the wall, managing to steal a moment of eternity through a kiss. It is a song of futility and anguish as well as one of defiance and hope.

“Though nothing will keep us together

We could steal time, just for one day

We can be heroes, forever and ever

What’d you say?”

(“Heroes” from the album Heroes, 1977)

Bowie was one of those rare artistes who managed to remain relevant and captivating throughout a career that spanned six decades in an industry where legends fade into oblivion in the face of new sensations and fads. His was a career of constant evolution and reinvention. He did not just write songs; he created worlds and personalities that from time to time served as his alter egos. There was Ziggy Stardust, the doomed alien messiah, killed by rock ‘n’ roll; the “cool cat” Halloween Jack of “Hunger City”; the schizophrenic Aladdin Sane; the nasty “isolationist” Thin White Duke; and the bleached blond archetypal rock star in the early 1980s. Nobody took the theatrics of rock ‘n’ roll to the level Bowie did, nor tooke the risks he took. The concept of a comfort zone was alien to him.

In 1972, when Bowie burst into drawing rooms through the television set, an orange-haired androgynous alien, sexually provocative and ambiguous, singing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, a new dimension opened up in the world music and entertainment. “Changes”, the stuttering anthem in his 1971 album Hunky Dory sums it up: “Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes/ Turn and face the strange”.

But behind all the glitter and sequins and drags and make-up was the undeniable fact that Bowie was one of the greatest songwriters and vocalists in the history of rock music, with a voice that seemed to have its origin from some remote glacial drift. It could chill you to the bone or cool your fevered mind. The world he created through his music could be strange and alien, sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying. It was often an apocalyptic vision of the future that he presented—an industrial wasteland devoid of human emotions. But however dark his vision, there would always be a plaintive voice of hope. Bowie himself cut a striking, enigmatic figure on and off stage. Tall and thin, with mismatched eyes (one grey, one blue—the result of a brawl over a girl while in high school that left one pupil permanently paralysed), and the sad, sweet aura of a fallen angel. His creativity was not restricted to music alone. He acted in films and plays—the most notable among them include The Man Who Fell to Earth, Hunger and Labyrinth—composed for Broadway, painted, and penned stories and poems.

Bowie appealed as much to the intellect as he did to the auditory aesthetics. He was a widely read man and that always reflected in his songwriting, be it his 1974 concept album Diamond Dogs—a musical interpretation of George Orwell’s 1984—or the classic rock anthem “Gene Jeanie”, with its allusion to the controversial French playwright and novelist Jean Genet. Science fiction and other-worldly creatures were also frequent themes in his songs.

As a child, he was strongly influenced by his half-brother Terry, a brilliant but tragic figure who had to be institutionalised because of schizophrenia. “It was Terry who started everything for me. Terry was into all the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso… he was into everything, reading up the early drug writers, Buddhism, poetry, rock and jazz,” Bowie later said of Terry. It was perhaps because of Terry that insanity and paranoia were recurring themes in his works.

“Day after day

They send my friends away

To mansions cold and grey

To the far side of town

Where the thin men stalk the streets

While the sane stay underground.”

(“All the Madmen” from the album The Man Who Sold the World)

To him the label of insanity is also another kind of misunderstanding, and he throws in his lot with those categorised insane: “…I’d rather stay here/ With all the madmen/ … For I am quite content they are all as sane as me.”

Bowie was the voice of the misfit and the misunderstood. What he always said through his creations and his whole persona was “It’s ok to be strange.” In doing so, he also encouraged society to be more accepting and not reject or ostracise what did not conform to all its parameters. He was the solace and inspiration for all the lonely outcasts of the world.

He also played a pivotal role in the gay rights movement through the medium of entertainment. Bowie was perhaps the first rock star to openly admit that he was gay. “I am gay and always have been; even when I was David Jones [the name he was born with],” he said in the early 1970s. However, soon after that statement, he did get married; and later he admitted wryly that he always was a “closet heterosexual”. But whether his admission to being gay was a career masterstroke at a time when most gay stars were careful to conceal their sexual orientation or whether he did it to jolt society out its long-held prejudice, Bowie showed the way to a liberated society.

Born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947, to working-class parents in the impoverished south London area, Bowie began to pursue music from an early age. He learnt to play the saxophone and played in different rhythm and blues bands. In 1966, he changed his name to Bowie and embarked on a solo career. His early music around 1966-67 was unique that it was out of sync with the music of the period. At a time when the Beatles was at the height of its powers and pushing the boundaries of experimentation with its seminal album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Jimi Hendrix was changing the concept of guitar-playing forever, Bowie’s music harked back to an older age. He drew comparisons with the British entertainer and singer Anthony Newley. But, strangely, in that anachronism, Bowie was also looking forward to where music would eventually head, for those strange, funny, and sometimes dark and often bizarre little ditties were conceived with their own little videos in mind. Bowie was already in the process of marrying sound and visual. He even took lessons from the British mime artiste Lindsay Kemp in the late 1960s.It was in 1969 that Bowie got the first hint of success with his song “Space Oddity”. The song, released a week before the Apollo 11 moon landing, tells the story of an astronaut, Major Tom, lost in space in his “tin cup”, quite oblivious to his situation. The song became a cult classic over the years. It was the song that the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sang aboard the International Space Station in 2013. Bowie said it was perhaps the most poignant rendition of the song.

In the 1970s, the Bowie era had arrived. Two brilliant albums, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory were released in 1970 and 1971. In the following year came the path-breaking The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The concept album and Bowie’s incarnation as Ziggy were an enormous hit. Ziggy Stardust was not just an alter ego but also a witty and wicked parody of the rock ’n roll world. Though he persisted with the Ziggy persona for just about a year, the impact of it was such that 44 years down the line, it is still a reference point in the history of rock, and one that took popular culture down a new direction.

What followed was one of the most creative periods of Bowie’s career. Along the path carved out by Ziggy Stardust came Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976). After retiring Ziggy, Bowie became Aladdin Sane (or a lad insane), with a bolt of lightning painted down across his face—a schizophrenic sign of a split personality—the part-pirate, part mod, Halloween Jack (who inspired the fashion of the romantic post-punk era of the early 1980s), and then the austere, detached and somewhat sinister “Thin White Duke”. Bowie had become a worldwide sensation, a global superstar. A man whose every move and gesture was endlessly imitated (and continues to be imitated). Like the man, the music could not be categorised either—there were elements of jazz, soul, funk, avant garde, classical, techno, punk, various yet-to-be-categorised music and, of course, good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.

The Berlin Trilogy

For all the critical and commercial success, Bowie’s greatest hour was yet to come. By 1976, the pressures of stardom began to take its toll on Bowie, and he shifted his base to Berlin. Three albums—Low, Heroes, and Lodger, together known as the Berlin Trilogy—came out of this period in his life and changed the course of popular music. At a time when most of the established artistes and stars were playing it safe and not deviating from mainstream music, Bowie made a bold statement by rejecting the conventional and following the experimental path. Both Low and Heroes, which came out in 1977, are unique in their structure and composition. The side A of both the albums contains short little sketches that upon first hearing would appear to be ideas or fragments of songs never completed. But it makes sense if one seriously listens to it again. This was in absolute contrast to the dark, brooding soundscapes of the B side of the two records. Bowie was baring his soul in the only way he could—artistically and with great originality. “My point is to communicate for myself first and foremostly; and if I have a public that is willing to follow me or keep going with me, that’s great,” he once said. The third Berlin album, Lodger, came out two years later in 1979. The influence of these three albums transcended the genre of popular music. In 1990, the classical composer Philip Glass paid a unique tribute to Bowie’s music of this period with a reinterpretation of Low in two symphonies. All three albums were produced by Tony Visconti with major contributions from the British musician and composer and record producer Brian Eno.

During this period he also collaborated with Iggy Pop in two of the latter’s seminal albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life. With 11 studio albums and a long list of hit songs, all of which have become classics in rock music, the 1970s belonged to Bowie. Musically, he continued to be a trendsetter throughout the 1980s. Even though far ahead of his time, Bowie also had a keen sense of the zeitgeist and readily embraced new styles and new movements in music, but in his own unique way. He was a star of every age. Throughout his career he extensively collaborated with fellow artistes, including John Lennon, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Quee and Arcade Fire. So many artistes covered his hit songs and made them hits of their own, like “Heroes” covered by the Wallflowers and “The Man who sold the World” by Nirvana in the 1990s.

The new millennium saw Bowie reuniting with Visconti after 22 years for the highly acclaimed album Heathen (2002). Visconti would go on to produce the next three Bowie albums as well, including the last one, Black Star. In 2003, Bowie dropped out of the scene after a heart attack. After 10 long years, just when everybody had come to the conclusion that Bowie had retired permanently, he surprised the world again with an album of brand new material, The Next Day. It was acclaimed by fans and critics alike as “the greatest comeback in rock n roll history”. Bowie had lost none of his magical powers.

But the biggest shock and surprise came three years later—the magnificent Black Star. When he sang “Look up here, I’m in heaven” in the song “Lazarus”, little did his fans know he was saying goodbye to them. Two days after its release, the full meaning of the album unfolded before them.

Oh, I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

Oh I’ll be free

Ain’t that just like me.”

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