Why we're still batty for superstar David Bowie
Ireland's top singers are paying tribute to the Starman
David Bowie is a pop star like no other - a rocker, a fabulist, an icon for the ages. As Ziggy Stardust, he romped in an leopardskin catsuit. In his Thin White Duke guise, he was skinny and pale, a vision of slicked hair and gleaming formal wear. In the video to 'Ashes to Ashes', he was one of the scariest clowns to grace our TV screens.
Uncovering the 'real' David Bowie has always been a challenge. Musically and sartorially, the singer, now 67, has flitted through many incarnations, rarely pausing long enough for audiences to catch up. Through the 1970s, especially, each season seemed to bring a new Bowie. It was almost as if he was teasing us with his abilities to switch identity.
This weekend, Irish Bowie fans have a unique opportunity to sample most of these incarnations at once (apart, you sincerely hope, from the horribly flapping Bowie of the Live Aid 'Dancing In Street' video). Tomorrow, the National Concert Hall's Art Of The Song event will see artists such as Lisa Hannigan, Duke Special, Heathers, Adrian Crowley and Jape's Richie Egan join in an evening of tribute to the chameleon of contemporary rock.
"Bowie kept me going through school," says Adrian Crowley, a cult songwriter whose hushed balladry couldn't be further removed from Bowie's sci-fi pomp.
"I found his different guises fascinating. Do I have a favourite Bowie phase? I love them all really."
Eyes widening, Crowley reveals he was lucky enough to see Bowie up close once, at a secret show at what is today the The Academy in Dublin. He'll never forget it.
"It was an invite-only gig in 1999 and, naturally, I wasn't invited. A friend of mine had tickets. She saw the look on my face after I heard she was going and felt compelled to give me the second ticket. Up close he was incredible. His smile… his eyes were like a beacon as he walked out on stage. I was up on my chair clapping. I thought, 'I'm making a fool of myself'. Then I realised everyone else was doing the same."
Even as a fledgling songwriter, Crowley struggled to comprehend Bowie's sheer inventiveness. 'Changes', 'Starman', 'Jean Genie'… these songs sounded as if they had winked into existence. It was difficult to imagine someone sitting at a piano, or with a guitar on their lap, bashing them out for the first time. Actually it was impossible.
"I saw his music as these strange, otherworldly creations, coming through the speaker," Crowley recalls. "I couldn't understand how they could be done. There was an incredible richness."
One of the remarkable things about Bowie is that, while his music is outwardly complex, the songs themselves are surprisingly straightforward, says Richie Egan of Jape, a winner of the Choice Music Prize for best Irish album.
"The instruments are so out there. And yet, if you break them down they are usually quite simple. His genius was to write straightforwardly, then turn it crazy. You hear it first and you think, 'how the hell did he do that?' Then you sit down with it and it's relatively straightforward. So it's a good education."
Amid the swooning, however, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that, as with every performer, Bowie has had his bumps along the way. As already mentioned, 1985's 'Dancing In the Street' was surely a low point - prancing and preening in his ridiculous white trench coat, Bowie managed to make Jagger look like the classier dancer (not even the fact that the single was a charity release made it excusable). For the next 10 years, his cool evaporated; he became merely another slick pop star, not so different from Phil Collins or Elton John.
"In a career like the one he's had, inevitably certain phases will be popular, others less so. But I've never guffawed at him," says Crowley. "In my teens, I tried to get out of listening to him obsessively because I was discovering new music. Ultimately, he never disappointed me."
Recently, Bowie has tried on a new identity for size: that of pop's answer to Howard Hughes. Living below the radar in New York with wife Iman and 14-year-old daughter Lexi, he is somewhat of a recluse, rarely seen in public and never performing live. His comeback album from last year The Next Day (his first new output in nearly a decade) was recorded in complete secrecy - with help from Dublin guitarist Gerry Leonard - and, several bizarre videos aside, Bowie has done little to promote it. His influence on popular culture has never felt as pervasive and yet is completely invisible.
"I was a bit worried to find out he was coming back," says Crowley. "I wasn't sure what it was going to be like. My fear was he would emerge from the silence and do something maybe he shouldn't have. But, you know, it is a gorgeous album: very sad, very honest."
Bowie fans will wonder what songs they can expect to hear at the National Concert Hall. Perhaps taking a leaf from the singer's latter-day philosophy of giving away as little as possible, the performers are declining to provide details. All they can confirm is that the set will blend familiar tracks and more obscure numbers (if any Bowie composition can truly be described in those terms).
"It is going to be a surprise for whoever shows up," says Crowley. "What I will say is that it's rare for me to sing someone else's material. To do that I have to love it. I would not do it unless I had a deep empathy."
Asked to surmise Bowie's influence on popular culture, the usually voluble Richie Egan is at a loss.
"He's an example of how to grow old as a musician and a person in a really classy manner. It's weird talking about David Bowie isn't it? It's like talking about the wind. He's just there."
'David Bowie: The Art Of The Song' is at National Concert Hall Dublin Saturday from 8pm, nch.ie