12 January, 2016

David Bowie

He played one final trick on us.

I’m not here to eulogise. Millions have done that already and they’re all right. I just want to recognise Bowie’s brilliant media manipulation even in his absence.

It’s well known that during what would become his final tour in 2004, Bowie suffered a serious heart scare. After that, he went extremely quiet. There was an appearance at David Gilmour’s Albert Hall Concert, a guest part in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, and then… nothing.

For want of further information, we assumed he was in seriously poor health. Unlike many of his contemporaries, it was unusual to go for more than a couple of years without a new Bowie album. After forty years of redefining his image, he was now leaving it to us to define his image. We filled in the gaps as best we could.

Then, just on three years ago (was it really that long ago already?) he surprised us with a new album, The Next Day. The lead single, the introspective Where Are We Now? had Bowie looking and sounding extremely frail, which went some way to confirming our suspicions that he wasn’t at all well. However, the rest of the album rocked like a beast in places. He certainly looked ten years older in the videos but aside from that, he seemed fine.

To be honest, The Next Day was not quite the work of genius it was greeted as. It was a fine Bowie album for sure, but if the exact same album had been released in 2005, when a new Bowie album might have been due, critics would probably have said, ‘Meh.’ By 2013, the world was so thankful that he was alive and well that five-star reviews were guaranteed and it became his highest charting album in decades. Well played, Dave! Well played.

While The Next Day was fairly standard Bowie, the new single that come with the cheekily titled 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed was something different entirely. A 7-minute experimental jazz track called Sue (or in a season of crime) showed that Bowie was still interested in uncharted musical territory.

The release of indicated that his return was complete. The Next Day was not a one-off. Bowie was back and ready to push the boundaries even further.

And then he goes and dies on us. Like a real-life Ziggy who implodes at the height of his powers, he left us. Many of us feared he had been dying for years, and just when we were starting to believe he wasn’t, he did.

It was described as an 18-month battle with cancer, which means the diagnosis would have come well after The Next Day, but there would surely have been illness before that. Perhaps he really was as sick as we feared for the last ten years, or maybe it came up suddenly. We may never know and it’s none of our business anyway. We never really knew who David Bowie was. That was all part of his genius. In the final decade, his mystique has become self-perpetuating and he just left it to us to define his persona.

As his friend and producer Tony Visconti wrote, even his death was a work of Art.

There are so many lyrics that can be quoted at this time...

Turn and face the strange changes...
Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear me Major Tom?
I ain’t got the power any more...
Knowledge comes with death's release...
There’s a Starman waiting in the sky...
‘It’s time we should be going...’
Ashes to ashes...
And I’m gone, like I’m dancing on angels...
Where are we now?
Look up here, I’m in Heaven...

But I think the best one to remember is the line from Ashes to Ashes:
I’m happy, hope you’re happy too

Farewell, you crafty old bugger!

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