Sunday 23 October 2016

The man who fell to Earth and sold his music to the world - the genuine icon

Published 12/01/2016 | 02:30

Genuine icon: Starman, David Bowie
Genuine icon: Starman, David Bowie

The word 'icon' is, perhaps, one of the most wildly over-employed phrases in the English language, particularly whenever a singer of even modest renown has passed away. But yesterday morning brought news of the death of a true icon, a genuine legend and a real inspiration for not one but several generations.

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There had been rumours for some time that David Bowie was ill, but the thin white enigma had always maintained such effortless aloofness that such rumours were casually dismissed.

After all, he had returned to the public eye in 2013, following a near decade-long silence, and that video, for the haunting single 'Where Are We Now', featured a gaunt Bowie appearing as a conjoined puppet, looking back on his younger days and singing about 'Just walking the dead'.

It was haunting, arresting and in its own inimitable Bowie style, mixed melancholia with a vague, otherworldly sense of foreboding. In fact, that particular video had all the wizened melancholia and sense of farewell as Johnny Cash's valedictory video for 'Hurt' and this was when many of the rumours of his physical deterioration began to fly. But the release last Friday of 'Black Star', his 25th album, timed to coincide with his 69th birthday, seemed to indicate rumours of his imminent demise had been premature.

For many of those now mourning the loss of this Colossus of popular culture, that sense of vague, otherworldly foreboding is what first attracted them to a man who seemed to cross boundaries, genres and genders with ludicrous, almost contemptuous ease.

For many of my generation, Bowie was just another name in their father's record collection until the video for 'Ashes To Ashes' simply changed everything.

In a pre-MTV era, and long before the days when bands like Duran Duran would spend a million pounds per video, 'Ashes To Ashes' remains, to this day, a viscerally disturbing hallucination. Bowie appeared as a psychotic Pierrot who looked to have emerged from some post-apocalyptic wasteland, stalking the blasted lands with his equally sinister-looking apprentices - most notably Steve Strange, who would use so much of his master's iconography when he went on to help create the New Romantic movement.

But, of course, there was so much more to the man than just a video which seemed designed to terrify and thrill young pop fans. After all, by that stage, he had already created, and then killed off, Ziggy Stardust.

For an artist who had become so reclusive that any new release was greeted with unadorned glee and excitement by grown men, he was once an astonishingly prolific performer, releasing an album a year in the 1970s, the most storied of which was surely the so-called 'Berlin trilogy' of 'Low', 'Heroes' and 'Lodger', which captured the fractured nature of that city at the time, as well as his own prodigious drug use.

In fact, it is a testament to the enduring brilliance of his work that his credibility could manage to sustain the kind of dents which would have finished a lesser talent.

His collaboration with Bing Crosby on 'Little Drummer Boy' was done utterly without artifice or irony and remains a seasonal classic as a result of that honesty. Similarly, his terrible 1985 duet with Mick Jagger in aid of Live Aid, their substandard cover of Martha and The Vandellas 'Dancing In The Streets' could have seen him slip into the role of jaded, bloated, comfortably wealthy ageing rock star who had waved goodbye to artistic relevance a long time ago - like Jagger, in other words.

But even that miscalculation was forgiven when he took to the stage later that year in Wembley and delivered the stand-out moment of Live Aid with what remains the definitive version of 'Heroes'. Even the ill-conceived 'Glass Spider' tour, which hit Slane in 1987 and is widely regarded as one of the worst shows ever staged in that venue, couldn't cure people of their fascination with this ultimate chameleon.

In fact, at one point his movie output was more warmly received than his music.

Appearing as a vampire alongside the glacial Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott's piece of extremely odd vampire erotica, 'The Hunger', he also shone as a rebellious prisoner of war in 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' and by that stage he seemed to have transcended the role of mere rock star.

Throughout everything, he remained a true untouchable to his fans - both literally and artistically.

Few people remember his Tin Machine experiment with any real fondness, but when rumours spread around town in 1991 that he was planning a secret gig in the Baggot Inn, even those normally unflappable veterans of the Dublin rock scene reacted with all the unqualified excitement of teenage girls discovering that One Direction were playing a secret show in their school hall.

This was Bowie and it didn't matter what material he was performing - for people of a certain generation, it had an almost religious significance.

A musical magpie in the best sense, even the albums which won't be mentioned in the same breath as his classics had moments of greatness.

His 1995 concept album, 'Outside' was a typically grandiose examination of pre-Millennial tension and the role of government interference in art (it did come with the subtitle 'The ritual art-murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama hyper-cycle', after all) but also featured one of his finer, if lesser regarded singles, the cracking 'Strangers When We Meet'.

Even his foray into drum'n'bass, 'Earthling' contained thrilling moments. Like many war babies, Bowie had a great love of absurdism and Spike Milligan and this appreciation of comedy was marked by his brilliant guest appearance on 'Extras'. There have been the usual obsequies from politicians, which will have tickled him immensely. After all, Nicola Sturgeon's tribute failed to mention that he was hated by Scottish nationalists following his pro-Union position, although at least Jeremy Corbyn did mention Bowie's much publicised and rather unfortunate flirtation with fascism in the 1970s.

The new video for 'Lazarus', which sees him lying on a hospital bed in a state of extreme distress, opens with the line: "Look up here, I'm in heaven", has been pored over with even greater intensity in the last 24 hours. As his long-time friend and collaborator Tony Visconti said yesterday: "This was his final gift to his fans".

As parting gifts go, it's hard to think of a better one.

Irish Independent

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