The legacy of David Bowie: five years, what a surprise
Alexander Larman on why the late, great David Bowie remains such a totemic and iconic figure in his life
In the past few years, I have been awoken twice with news about David Bowie. On 8 January 2013 – his birthday – the tidings, thankfully, were very good. Bowie, who the world had assumed had retired from the music industry due to a mixture of ill health and disillusionment, had recorded an album, The Next Day, entirely in secret. That day, he released an extraordinary comeback single, “Where Are We Now?”, in which he delved into his past in Germany, and beyond.
The song, a fragile and beautiful ballad that built to a mighty conclusion, was sung by Bowie in a frail voice, leading people to suspect that he was releasing it as a final artistic statement. Thankfully, the album’s more vibrant and energetic songs, which included some of Bowie’s best, made listeners realise that, once again, he had played a trick on everyone. First, like Baudelaire’s devil, he disappeared, fooling the world into thinking that he no longer existed; secondly, he had returned with yet another persona, to add to the myriad of figures who he had created earlier in his career, from Space Oddity’s Major Tom to the smiling, laddish blonde-haired arena rock star of the early 2000s.
The next time that I woke up early, on 11 January 2016, the news was less good. My wife was heavily pregnant with our daughter, and we were preparing to head to hospital for her to be induced, so I was in a tense and unsettled state anyway. What she told me first thing that morning, with a careful degree of measured sympathy, knocked me for sixes and sevens.
Every single account that I have heard of Bowie suggests that he was the most charming of men
Bowie had died, three days after the release of what proved to be his final album, Blackstar. His illness had been long rumoured but never confirmed. I had heard Blackstar for the first time the previous week and found it dense, allusive and puzzling. It was clearly about something, I thought, but what? What was the mystical, disturbing symbolism in the music videos for the title track and “Lazarus”? Was Bowie trying to tell us something? It soon became obvious that the starman was indeed sending his admirers one final message: he was going home, and this extraordinary final release was his farewell to us all. As he sang on “Dollar Days”, “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to meet… I’m dying to”.
The news hit me hard, far harder than I could have expected for someone who I had never met. I remember writing a long, rambling blog post about my feelings, while listening to his song “Conversation Piece”, an incisive look at the failings of a lonely academic’s life and the lyrics that seemed appropriate that end the song: “And I can’t see the water/Through the tears in my eyes”. I remember shedding a tear, or two, that landed on the keyboard as I tried to write, but then I had to pull myself together. We had to get to hospital. A new life had to replace the one that had passed.
They say that you should never meet your heroes (“just for one day”). I envy anyone who knew David Bowie, because every single account that I have heard of him suggests that he was the most charming and lively of men, fired up with a questioning, searching intelligence and a deeply English sensibility that was uneroded by the decades that he spent living overseas, whether in Switzerland, New York or elsewhere. It seems appropriate that the final appearance that he ever made on a British stage, at the Albert Hall in 2006 as a guest of David Gilmour, was heralded by a hysterical rush of adulation and applause, to which the by then semi-retired Bowie replied, amused, “My, my, my, I hope I warrant that.” In what now seems a piece of serendipity, I was present, and watched him perform Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” in full Cockernee splendour, followed by a suitably dramatic interpretation of “Comfortably Numb”. He was, as ever, magnificent.
It is a source of regret that Bowie was never able to deal with the iniquities of ‘cancel culture’
The closest that I ever came to any interaction with Bowie was an attempt at interviewing him when I was a student: he had agreed to consider a list of my questions, so I sent over what I hoped were provocative and unusual enquiries. They were probably tortuously nonsensical. (“When you sang on ‘Space Oddity’ about the papers wanting to know whose shirts you were wearing, were you referring to the cult tailor Mr Fish?”) Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never heard anything back. But he remained – remains – a totemic and iconic figure in my life, one who managed to inspire and excite my creative imagination in ways that I would have once considered impossible. Five years on, I, like millions of other admirers, still miss him terribly.
It is not hard to discern why. While most of Bowie’s contemporaries long ago fell into self-parody, obsolescence or simple ubiquity, he recovered from a fairly barren period in the late Eighties (the obituaries were kind enough to draw a veil over his work with Tin Machine, a failed attempt to reinvent himself as the frontman of a heavy rock band) to produce some extraordinarily rich and varied work throughout the Nineties and Noughties.
As he had in his Seventies heyday, he brought a chameleonic flair and a magpie sensibility to various different genres of contemporary music. Britpop (which he had done as much as anyone to invent), jungle, hip hop, dance: all of their influences could be found on albums such as Earthling, Outside and …hours, and were then refined more successfully in his 2002 release Heathen and follow-up album Reality, in which he meditated about the grim legacy of 9/11 and the likely consequences for the 21st century.
For someone who had sung on 1971’s “Quicksand” that “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man”, he came remarkably close to predicting the creeping sense of dread and dislocation that would soon be brought about through everything from social media, terrorism and the looming culture wars. (It is a source of regret that Bowie, that most articulate and intellectually agile of thinkers, was never able to deal with the iniquities of contemporary “cancel culture”.)
But as he continued to perform his best-known hits to rapturous audiences worldwide, delivering perfectly timed and matey “Landahn” banter between songs, he continued to play the role of the fifty-something rock star to perfection. It was a performance, a reminder that the man who once appeared in a documentary called Cracked Actor was apparently happiest when appearing in costumes and make-up, delivering lines that he had written decades before with exaggerated sincerity and reverence to ecstatic audiences.
By 2007 Bowie was seldom seen in public and took to carrying a Greek-language newspaper around with him
This did not cease onstage. He occasionally gave interviews to suitably awestruck journalists, who repeatedly wrote of how, during their time in Bowie’s presence, he affected a degree of candour and straightforwardness that he had never before deigned to offer a writer, only for them to find, upon publication, that they had not received a world-beating exclusive. Instead, they had been given much the same information as their colleagues, and their predecessors, but the deception had been done so charmingly and so flatteringly that he remained a popular, rather than vexing, subject. (For an example in contrast, look at the way that Roger Waters has never really recovered from Tom Hibbert’s magisterial demolition of him in Q in 1992).
This phase of Bowie’s career was abruptly cut short mid-tour in 2004, when he suffered a severe heart attack. He never played a full concert again, and, apart from a few brief guest appearances in 2006, never played live thereafter. Initially, there were a few sparks of life, even if they were quixotic in nature, such as singing typically dramatic backing vocals on some Scarlett Johansson covers of Tom Waits songs, or a brief, iconic appearance as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. But by 2007, he seemed to have vanished from public view entirely.
This phase of Bowie’s life and career remains obscure, and probably always will. He became most famous for turning things down, such as Danny Boyle’s entreaties to appear at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, belting out “Heroes” to kick proceedings off. In the event, it was Paul McCartney’s quavery rendition of “Hey Jude” that would have to suffice. He was seldom seen in public and took to carrying a Greek-language newspaper around with him, on the grounds that it would confuse people sufficiently for them not to bother him.
Yet by 2011, he had recovered interest in music enough to contact his long-standing producer Tony Visconti and say that he wished to return to the studio on a purely experimental basis, to see if the ideas and demos that he had come up with could be turned into fully-fledged songs. In turn, Visconti contacted some of Bowie’s regular musicians, all of whom had to sign stringent NDAs in order to work with him again. As he said to one, with ironic amusement, “there’s a young singer-songwriter called David Jones from London who would like to cut a record. Shall we help him?”
The Next Day was a massive commercial and critical success, its release heralded with enormous relief, and it coincided with a major exhibition at the V & A, David Bowie Is, which explored Bowie’s artistic and musical career with a rigour and adulation normally reserved for long-dead figures. Bowie himself allowed the curators full access to his comprehensive archive but did not seek to influence any aspect of the exhibition, and visited it himself once, with his family, in a secretive private viewing one Sunday morning.
It proved to be his final visit to Britain, one conducted with the calm certainty of a man who knew that it would be his last. He took his young daughter Lexi to his birthplace in Brixton, and to Beckenham where his career began. Had anyone seen a middle-aged man looking curiously at David Bowie’s old house, they might have been amused, or thrilled, to know who the figure concealing his identity under his usual disguise of baseball cap and sunglasses actually was.
The outpouring of grief that came after his death did not feel like the usual rush of lachrymosity
Bowie had, by his own admission, a hard-living existence in his heyday, one of drugs, alcohol and apparently endless cigarettes. He abandoned the first two before he was middle-aged, but the fags continued, and so he was diagnosed with liver cancer at some point in 2015. Initially he believed that the disease was serious but potentially operable, and set about recording a new album, Blackstar, this time without his usual musicians but instead using a New York jazz quintet, which gave the songs a louche, Weimar Republic-esque energy. The songs were permeated with musings on death and posterity, delivered with the assurance of a man who knew that, whatever happened to his corporeal body, he would never be forgotten. In the final months of his life, a musical premiered that used his songs, Lazarus, which he was heavily involved in. He attended its opening night in New York on 7 December 2015, looking gaunt but cheery. A month later, he would be dead.
It is very easy to be sentimental about the deceased, to offer them undue prominence and to forgive and forget their often egregious flaws. Yet with Bowie, the outpouring of grief that came after his death did not feel like the usual Princess Diana-esque rush of lachrymosity we have become familiar with, but a reminder that we would not look upon his like again. He has been endlessly influential, probably the rock star who has bestowed the greatest and most significant legacy on the medium, but he himself would have regarded the reaction to his departure with sardonic and ironic amusement, perhaps once again commenting “my, my, my, I hope I warrant that.” The way in which he continues to inspire both loyalty and adulation, as can be seen by the release of a new (and unauthorised) film about his early life, Stardust, remains a testament to the fact that he did, indeed, warrant such a reaction, amidst countless radio programmes and celebrity tributes to a man who would have recently turned 74.
My daughter, incidentally, was born four days after his death, on 15 January 2016. We called her Rose Evelyn Bowie Larman. That her initials spelt Rebel – “Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess” – was not a coincidence. If she should grow up to have one scintilla, one iota, of her forebear’s flair, brilliance and wit, and if she can look at the world, laugh at its absurdities and inconsistencies, and try and change it for the better, as he did, then I shall be a very proud father indeed.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe