I spent most of last summer listening to the music of David Bowie. As though I was discovering him for the first time. Somehow, and for no apparent reason, although I have a good few Bowie albums in my collection and have long had a keen respect for his music and alien-like unapproachability; the fact that he was (I can’t believe I am already using the past tense, I really can’t) so effortlessly, so brilliantly cool and so utterly, uniquely distinctive, so inimitably original – despite all this, I had rarely let his oeuvre get so completely under the skin as I did for those hot weeks we spent at home in July and August just lazing around and blasting out his music. Last August the soundtrack was David Bowie. And virtually nothing else.
My longtime friends all know that I am always making CD compilations that I then send them ( although it has tailed off somewhat in recent years), and, if the CD drive hadn’t been bust at that particular time and I had been more prescient, then many of them would probably then have been receiving, in the post, my ‘Ultimate Bowie’ mix, called ‘I’m Only Dancing’ that I was working on and listening to obsessively, all day every day, so perfect in the searing Japanese heat, so ridiculously exciting. Exotic. Full of heat, yet cold; that exquisitely clammy froideur, grandeur; that bi-optic, reptilian genius (and yes of course I realise that you can just send playlists online and all that, but receiving the physical, personally designed CD as an object to keep – and all my friends will also attest, always perfumed, oh yes, you have to perfume the track listing to make it sink into you even more – is so much more pleasurable and endurable). The antithesis of the banal and the prosaic, this weird, eerie funk music bathed in atmospherica, those cold, staring eyes, the curious, unworldly mindset of an inscrutable, canny rockstar who had so perfected the art of overwhelming detachment that for many people, in many walks of life, he was a God.
Beginning with the cocaine-fuelled hysteria of ‘Stay’ from Station To Station, a song that played loud could literally bust my brain chemistry I find it so exhilarating, so rangy and sinewy, a blinding, white-powder shock funk that even with my crummy, bad knees had me dancing like a dervish round the kitchen on the vestiges of my cartilage (along with Duncan, as well half the time, both of us swept up in the fever), in my decade-hopping mix taken from most of the albums, I then wound eclectically in my choices through the blue-eyed white boy funk period of Young Americans (possibly my favourite Bowie album), that record – seen on my sofa in the picture – that has such addictively swaggering songs on it as Fascination and Right – so insanely danceable and heady I could lose my mind to them -(and have done, frequently) on the dance floor, through to the shimmering, jazz-tinged chameleonica of Lady Of The Grinning Soul (so, so beautiful, from the Aladdin Sane LP, along with that classic, addictive and head-spinning eponymous song), through to the gloom-laden instrumentals from Heroes and Low, and The Secret Life Of Arabia (swoon) as well as the Turk-tinted pop songs from Lodger – all my favourite Bowie songs, in my obsessive compiling, merging, gradually into a two CD mix that gradually segued into the hits, on Part Two, from Loving The Alien through to Space Oddity and the beautiful Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes, Look Back In Anger, the, again absurdly groove-inducing John I’m Only Dancing (Again) and ending, finally, with the full length album version of Let’s Dance, which to me, is such a blisteringly, searingly, body-wrenchingly exciting pop song that I can still never forget the moment, in 1983, that it blasted right through to the top of the charts. It was amazing: nothing had ever sounded quite like it. When we have a party and I put it on and it reaches that climax, I really do tremble like a flower.
And then, just two nights ago (really?) we were about to go out, to Tokyo, and post bath, getting ready upstairs and applying my scents, I happened to see on social media that there was, out of the blue, a new single: Black Star. Like many people, I have been less enamoured of David Bowie’s output of recent years, but clicking on the Vevo link for the hell of it I found that I was quite mesmerised, that his music was again renewed: a riveting, ten minute song that begins like Bjork’s Spain/Moorish Hunter, that then segues and swoops into more soaring, melodic territory before returning, with its Butoh influenced dancers, to its odd, jittering start. It was so good I listened to it immediately again twice more afterwards, excited and genuinely drawn in. I’ll buy the new album next week, I said to myself, having read some rave reviews, amazed and really pleased that someone, at 69, could still be at the pinnacle of their powers, still able to shift gears, and styles, create relevant sounding music ,preserve that mysterious aura that David Bowie has always had more than any other pop star, ever (forgive me if I am sticking to the present perfect tense; it feels more natural, somehow, than the past simple: can he really have gone? ). I really couldn’t believe it at all this evening when I saw that he is now dead, just when he was about to stage another artistic rebirth (with another single, and a musical, most tellingly, called Lazarus. He knew).
In truth, if I am honest, unlike other people I know, I never felt any deep, sentimental connection to David Bowie. In some ways he even repelled me . Many of my friends, on the contrary (because I naturally, obviously, have the kind of friends who love David Bowie) will be really mourning the loss of the man today and tonight, really mourning him – on a deep and emotional level for what he meant for them- for the incredible pioneering of his artistry and androgyny, his middle finger to the establishment, for the sheer influence that he has had on so many spheres of modern culture (he changed music; he changed how we view gender, the man truly liberated, and the way he looked was so astonishing; I picked up, again in the summer, during this almost clairvoyant late-stage Bowie mania, a Greatest Video Hits Collection that was fascinating to watch, to see his evolution, but despite all the kaleidoscopic image changes and abrupt changes in musical style it was the Life On Mars video that struck me the deepest: I honestly don’t think I have ever seen a human being look more amazing; more enviably stylish and original. He was not of this world; a man who fell to earth, from beyond).
Yet, as I said, he never really touched me emotionally. The friends I have in England and around the world at this moment who will probably be crying at the loss of their Hero, their Thin White Duke, their Ziggy, those precious, classic records they played to death as they were growing up and that presented them with salvation and a sense that there was hope for people that couldn’t, or didn’t want to, conform to the bleakness of society’s rules, I know they will be devastated at his loss, but I myself had other idols and music that touched me on a deeper, more intuitive emotional level, that reached further into the recesses of my soul. He was not my favourite musician. And yet, when I think about it, there is not a great deal of music in the pop music canon that can make me feel quite so deliriously excited and outside myself as David Bowie’s, that can rev me up in such an incandescent, peculiar way. If dancing and the inability to sit still, or restrain your inner organs in serenity is emotion, then the man, in fact, did blister me to the core.
For me, David Bowie was more than just a pop singer, or a performer. He was a true artist. He was living his ideas, aware of his deity-like status, yet not exploiting it. He just created, from afar. And how clever, and how tragically beautiful, in a way, this ending. To make an album in silence, while suffering with a terminal illness in pain, to still create and make new music as a fresh, indignant riposte to mortality: to release an album – on his birthday – and then to die right afterwards. It is a cruel, master-plan of a cosmic joke. His final bow. Sad, but totally brilliant. Somewhere, out there in the strange Major Tom trajectory of his space odyssey, I know that the Star Man is smiling.