Listening to David Bowie. Again. Sixth straight day now – nothing but Bowie, except for Iggy Pop’s The Idiot last night, which has DB within and all over anyway.
Man, what a week. No one saw that coming, did they? And yet here we are, a week in to a world without David Bowie, a week that started just hours after Blackstar emerged as a vigorous statement of presence and life.
It seems odd to feel this saddened and moved by the death of someone you never knew – it’s not grief, but it is loss of some sort, and the scale of comment and tribute to David Bowie means that it must be valid, it must be real. Listen to Marc Riley open his evening show on the day of Bowie’s passing and you’ll hear a seasoned broadcaster who struggles to hold it together. It’ll bring a tear. It did to me.
With Blackstar topping the charts, many people will have had it on heavy rotation this week. Me, I can’t bring myself to play it again just yet. It was the last music I played on Sunday evening, 10th January, and that exploratory first proper listen had good omens – not surprising given the Sue, Blackstar and Lazarus teasers ahead of the launch, all of which led to us being just a bit fckn excited by the Bowieotherness of this new music. Like everyone, I looked forward to sinking into Blackstar as an album after two months of trying not to hear the singles too often. Wanted to save some of freshness for the right context.
Waking the next day, we hear that Blackstar’s creator had died. Day by day the insights and revelations started to unfold with touching, revealing comments and tributes from the likes of Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Mike Garson and Henry Rollins who, as usual, pens a precise, impassioned piece of reportage, fanaticism and insight. He writes about music like the fan that he is, like the fans that we all are.
With Bowie though, we’ve all got our own version, haven’t we? No-one really knew who he was but he made connections, not just with people and listeners but with ideas, scenes, forms, genres, literature, cities even. He connected on a distant yet inexplicably deep level with us, so much so that you could pick him up at any time in his career or your life and still have him mean something massive. You didn’t have to have been there in his reputation-defining decade, transfixed by a full-beam Starman on the telly. Death of Ziggy? Nope – wasn’t around, read about it as an adult. Low, Heroes? Same deal. My earliest memories are a TOTP Ashes to Ashes vid and a lingering oddball imprint of Bowie in front of a mirror turning himself into a baldy alien – spooky as fuck. Still haven’t worked out how I saw that.
So he was part of the pop years of early childhood with Let’s Dance, Absolute Beginners, Under Pressure and the like, but when you reach adolescence and leave pop behind because you’re starting your guitar-heavy trip, how do you find David Bowie?
You don’t find Bowie because, unlike Zeppelin, Sabbath, Motorhead and other relative elders, he just doesn’t figure in those scenes. He’s irrelevant. Meanwhile you get busy with Soundgarden, Faith No More, Ministry, Tool and Nine Inch Nails, whose Broken becomes a big deal. So aggressive. The Downward Spiral becomes the best new album you’ve ever heard, and that’s when it all starts: Trent Reznor cites Low as an influence.
And you’ve never heard of Low but you can’t believe Bowie the Popstar could ever have informed Nine Inch Nails.
And then you discover the Stooges, and see Bowie’s name on Raw Power.
And you see that Nirvana’s Man Who Sold the World was not written by Nirvana.
And around the same time you hear some industrialised rock on daytime Radio 1, but there’s a proper singer and avant piano that your youngadult ears don’t understand … surely not NIN with a vocal transplant?
No. It’s Heart’s Filthy Lesson, and the Outside album – dark, vital, bold, conceptual, heavy and one of Bowie’s best – is the one that marks the start of a beautiful, labyrinthine journey with the man who took a permanent leave of absence from our world this week. 1995 was my Real Time convergence with the path of Bowie’s restless star.
So it wasn’t so much that I or people like me found David Bowie, but that – somehow – Bowie found us, and what he did in the next couple of years cemented his presence: tour with Nine Inch Nails, appear on Reznor’s Lost Highway soundtrack, bang on about Photek and drum n bass and fuse it all into Earthling (fckn great record, don’t know why it gets a so-so from cr*t*cs), sing on Goldie’s Saturnz Return album, become a player in the art world, publish a fake book that hoaxes the art world… and that’s just the stuff I either have or remember from a sliver of time in what were supposed to be his past-it years. Can you imagine how warp-speed the 1970s must have felt?
And can I say again how essential Outside and Earthling are?
But, like Blackstar, they haven’t been played (yet) this week … instead, solace has been found in the post-Earthling run of ‘Hours…’, Heathen and Reality, records that slightly underwhelmed on first listen but grew – like new Bowie pretty much always does – as soon as you accept that it is what it is, and it’s not what he was. Those albums, all air-conditioned cool and surface calm, give you SPACE to luxuriate in the lost man’s voice and do it far away from the mega hits that covered the news and the radio this week. Hours… may be the slightest of the three but even there, If I’m Dreaming My Life and What’s Really Happening are Bowietimeless. Black Tie White Noise, Buddha of Suburbia, All Saints Collected Instrumentals and Tin Machine (never understood the full-on trashing they got) have also all done the job this week. New detail is revealed with every listen, which is one reason why we end up with our very own strange fascinations of this far-reaching artist: he gave – no, gives – so much that we can always learn and will never, ever catch up.
David Bowie. Transmitter, seer, creator, and truly an artist of both sound and vision. A more significant rock music loss is impossible to imagine.