Vale David Bowie: He’s A Star, Man.
IMAGE: David Bowie, 1975
According to a group of international scientists, humanity has now had such a detrimental impact upon our own world that we have actually managed to shift the globe into a new geological epoch. Between our burning of fossil fuels, our addiction to driving species extinct, the dumping of toxins, the use of plastic and concrete (so ubiquitous that our oceans are now riddled with microplastic decay – yum), deforestation, reliance on fertiliser, and use of nuclear weapons, we have taken a process that usually takes millions of years of incremental evolution – from Triassic, to Jurassic, to Cretaceous – and squeezed it down to just shy of 16,000 years.
Because we’re humans. That’s what we do.
Bigger! Better! Faster! Howling as we hurl ourselves untethered into the abyss. Trying to convince ourselves that the world is not burning beneath us.
The scientists are therefore proposing a name change, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Because that’s the other thing we do. We name things after ourselves.
A few days after this news was announced, David Bowie’s friends and loved ones revealed that he had died, surrounded by his family, after a year and a half battle with cancer. And as hyperbolic as this will risk sounding, I cannot seem to disentangle the two events.
Not, I should warn, because I am going to try and make some hyperbolic, farcical declaration that there was a before and after David Bowie. That human history as we know it would not exist were it not for Aladdin Sane. (…I might make that argument for Station to Station, but that’s another matter.)
Because in my head, Bowie isn’t Earth, or history itself. He isn’t global warning, or nuclear fission, or a meteor waiting to strike down the dinosaurs.
He’s those scientists.
Bowie was an artist who had the capacity to name, to give shape, to epochs. Try thinking of the sixties without ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Letter to Hermione’ (even if that self-titled album only snuck in half way through 1969). Try thinking of the seventies without ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘”Heroes”, ‘The Jean Genie”, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Life on Mars?’, etc. etc. etc… The eighties without ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Under Pressure’, or ‘Dancing in the Street’. The nineties without ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, or Nirvana’s version of ‘Man Who Sold the World’. The 2000s without the post-9/11 grim introspection of Heathen, the career-spanning Reality album tour.
Try growing up without having Labyrinth fixed like a nostalgic load-bearing wall in your soul; or forgetting his hilariously deadpan scene in Ricky Gervais’ Extras (‘Pathetic little fat man…’). Try denying the genius of his music videos, each one a unique experimental art film (and yes, I’m even including the surreally chipper ‘Dancing in the Street’).
And even now, in the teens of a new millennium, a decade since he was healthy enough to tour his music, he still remains as prescient and urgent as ever, having released two astonishing albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, replete with songs like ‘I’d Rather Be High’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘Dollar Days’, and ‘Lazarus’ that would make any other songwriter’s career on their own.
Bowie seemed to have an unmatched ability to identify and render in song the experience of generations. He poured all of it into his music and his personas – from pop psychedelia to crunchy rock, from glam cabaret, to freaky folk, through jazz and disco and electronic and crooner, he refracted it through the multiple character masks he employed that each embodied their age: Ziggy Stardust; Aladdin Sane; the Thin White Duke; his later, meta-impersonation of himself. Each album these figures produced offering an anthology, perfectly articulating the angst of the time in which it was released.
And like that body of international scientists, what his music described, again and again was that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves. The characters in his songs shoot themselves into space on doomed missions. They sell the world. Burn out in rock and roll suicides. Even the melodies could sometimes barely keep themselves together, with song’s like ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the final song of his final album ‘I Can’t Give Everything’, threatening to run themselves apart at times, fragile moments of harmony to be treasured amongst a cacophony of sound.
He knew that we were killing ourselves, lying to ourselves, lost in ourselves. It’s no doubt why his work was peppered with references to anti-utopian literature – Orwell’s 1984; Burgess’ Clockwork Orange – nonetheless his songs were still defiantly hopeful. He used fantasy to reflect our devastation, but still saw something to celebrate amongst the despair.
Songs like ‘Life On Mars?’ might be the auditory equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch canvases, but they revel in the frenzied splendour of our disorder. In ‘Five Years’ the impending apocalypse leads people to recalibrate what is truly valuable amongst the detritus of life; the line ‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ dissolving the judgemental barriers that divide society. In the sublime ‘Golden Years’ he celebrates the sunset of a loved one’s glory. In ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ he cries out passionately ‘You’re not alone’ to all those feeling disaffected and unseen. Chaos does not mean despair in Bowie’s soundscape. It is an invitation: ‘Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.’
For Bowie, in his music, in his myriad personas, when we accept all our freaky, broken excesses, we’re finally free to be ourselves. We can embrace each other without pretention, all equal in our messy wreckages of self.
Because we’re humans. That’s also what we do.
And right up to the end, with Blackstar, Bowie was continuing to describe his own – and humanity’s – demise, finding beauty in the predictable banality of our decay. His exquisite fugue ‘Lazarus’ is replete with lyrics that affirm and deny at once:
Look up here, I’m in Heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.
Everybody knows me now.
Like all Bowie’s work, it’s marvellously cryptic and personal. He’s singing both about himself, and a character divorced from himself at the same time. He’s alive while singing about being dead; now dead while singing about being alive. He’s free like a bluebird, he says, and ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ But that ‘me’ is profoundly, impossibly multifaceted. He’s ‘known’ now, but remains fundamentally obscured. We know of him, but cannot know him.
It’s also why the cover of his final album – the last album he knew he would release before his death – is so profound. For the Star Man, Ziggy Stardust, the final image is another star, now black, disassembling itself. It is a powerful metaphor for an artistic icon in a state off self-assessment; compound and divisible, but always more than the sum of his constituent parts.
In his music David Bowie transcended the temporal. He seemed to stand outside of time to reflect our experience of it back to us. To name what we couldn’t articulate within ourselves. Like a scientist categorising the ages of global history he defined and gave voice to the experience of decades of lost souls. Those estranged and bewildered on the closing out of the 20th century, stumbling blind and just as alone into the 21st.
Which makes it even more extraordinary that even here, on his last record, released days before his death, Bowie continues to voice the impossible, eclipsing death itself to comfort his fans, transforming into one last masque, the undying Bowie, to remind them that his music – music that, like its creator, was intimate and alien in one – will remain. Those extraordinary songs might be divorced, necessarily, from the man who brought them into being. But that was always, in some way, true – and they are no less powerful for that. The music locates us, in time and experience, a campfire around which we gather, warmed even in the fading of the light.
So vale David Bowie; man who named the world.
Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.
IMAGE: Cover of Blackstar by David Bowie