Saturday 7 December 2019

David Bowie 1947-2016: A genius who made us all believe we could be heroes

David Bowie during his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ phase in the 1970s.
Photo: ROGER BAMBER / Rex Features
David Bowie during his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ phase in the 1970s. Photo: ROGER BAMBER / Rex Features

Eamon Carr

To his millions of admirers, it might feel like a cruel trick. An ill-conceived PR stunt. But it isn't. It's news. Hard news. David Bowie is dead.

In life, as in show business, timing is everything. And Bowie, ever the consummate theatrical performer, has made a final exit that has sent shockwaves around the globe.

Just a few days ago, his fans thrilled on hearing him singing, "Look up here, I'm in heaven. I've got scars that can't be seen."

These are the opening lines of 'Lazarus', a track on the album that was released on Friday. He looked a bit gaunt in the video. A character on his deathbed, who got up, did a little dance before writing furiously.

The album it's from is 'Blackstar'. Even before the grim announcement, it was being hailed as one of the singer's more totemic works, ranking among his greatest creative achievements. Bowie is dead. So how was it for you?

The kernel of the man's genius, thanks to his wondrous repertoire of songs, is that most people feel they had a direct personal connection with him.

It wasn't always a given that David Jones from the London suburb of Bromley would become one of the most influential figures in popular culture. Like many who became teenagers in the Sixties, Bowie was initially attracted to the gritty rhythm'n'blues that had been made fashionable by bands like The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things.

But young Jones had an innate grasp of the vagaries of pop. More than most, he understood the importance of style. He embraced the traditions of theatre and dance with the same enthusiasm as he showed for folk music and rock'n'roll.

Having absorbed much of what had gone before, he constructed the most fascinating, mysterious and challenging pop creation ever. Himself.

In doing so, he inspired legions of young men and women everywhere, many of whom discovered a new sense of purpose in their lives. His example prompted many to go on and do great work themselves.

Incorporating elements of Weimar Republic Cabaret, science fiction, hard rock and androgyny, he changed pop music forever. No matter how exotic his chameleon-like persona became, he maintained a connection with his audience.

Listeners developed an empathy with Bowie through lines in his songs that shared truths and acknowledged personal convictions.

When he sang, "We can be heroes…", he made it possible to believe. He convinced even the most sceptical by adding…"Just for one day."

It probably sounds bizarre but, having met the man on a number of occasions, I came away with the words of the 18th century Irish poet and novelist Oliver Goldsmith chiming in my consciousness.

"And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew. That one small head could carry all he knew."

Bowie carried his genius lightly. His touch could bring diverse artistic influences together and rearrange them in an accessible and entertaining new form. And he took his inspiration from many diverse sources.

His record company announced the arrival of the album 'Heroes' in 1977 with the slogan, "There's Old Wave, there's New Wave and there's David Bowie." Like 'Low', the album released earlier the same year, 'Heroes' had been recorded in the west Berlin, an enclave cut off in the Cold War era by the infamous Berlin Wall.

While there he allowed the work of the early German Expressionists to influence his creative thinking. It wasn't just dead artists who interested him. West Berlin was buzzing. By coincidence, we had some acquaintances in common. One of the happening nightclubs I frequented back then was Chez Romy Haag, just before this famous transgender cabaret performer became David's very close friend.

Years later, when we discussed the songs on his 1999 album 'Hours…', David was in playful mood. Teasing, I asked if he'd like to suggest a visual art analogy for his new songs. He thought for a moment, drew deeply on yet another Marlborough cigarette, and laughed and said, "Well it's not Damien Hirst."

"Maybe someone nice and gentle, like Augustus John," he ventured.

Spotting my quizzical eyebrow and, perhaps, realising he was in Dublin, he added, "No. Maybe not. Jack Yeats! There you go."

Not content to leave it at that, he explained, "I have a painting of his of two bums lying on a hillside, sleeping. The apocryphal story is that it was one of the paintings which influenced Samuel Beckett when he was writing 'Waiting For Godot', which I'd love to believe."

I couldn't but remember that story when I watched the video for 'Lazarus' for the first time last week. David seemed to resemble a version of Beckett. And our conversation that evening seemed to pre-figure the themes on 'Blackstar'. Describing his then introspective songs, he explained they were an attempt "to capture a kind of universal angst felt by many people of my age". Bowie was 52. "There's something about the life and death motifs in his (Jack B Yeats) work that maybe are not dissimilar. Just to have that kind of work around me, I find, influences me tremendously."

Bowie had deliberately kept himself off the celebrity radar following a heart attack in 2004. Nothing tempted him into the limelight. Even an offer to perform at the London Olympics which used his 'Heroes' as its unofficial anthem.

He spent his time between a home in upstate New York and an apartment in SoHo with his wife Iman and their young daughter Lexi.

Of course, the rumour mill was out of control. Lurid conspiracy theories abounded. But all were demolished when, out of the blue, the single 'Where Are We Now?' landed this week three years ago. In the video, Bowie looked back to Berlin. As evidenced by the album 'The Next Day', his creative juices were flowing.

While the overall tone of 'Blackstar' is sombre, no one felt the need to be alarmed. David was an artist doing what great artists do, teasing out existential riddles.

Besides, he had an impish sense of humour and a span of interests that ranged through all of the artistic disciplines.

Here's a fun example. Bowie was on the editorial board of the celebrated art magazine 'Modern Painters'. Sometime during the 1990s, Bowie collaborated with writer William Boyd on writing the biography of a forgotten artist, 'Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960'.

It caused a sensation in the art world with critics and curators praising his work and recalling the times they met. Wrong! The whole thing was a scam. An elaborate hoax. A magnificent in-joke.

Sadly, today, there's no delayed punchline.

Irish Independent

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