This Christmas for the umpteenth time I watched the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life. A warm life-affirming movie in which an angel visits the suicidal James Stewart and shows him how his home town would be if he’d never been born.
It is hard to even conceive how the cultural landscape of the last 40 to 50 years would have looked had an angel attended a rock’n’roll suicide and decreed that David Bowie had never been born. His music alone puts him right at the top of the musical firmament, but his legacy is so much more than that. He was chameleon, corinthian but no caricature. An artist in the truest sense. His career was all about creation, forever looking to make something new and refusing to be penned in by considerations of form. He wanted to be an artist who did much more than write and sing pop songs. Performance and mythology were just as important. He was writer, performance artist, producer, choreographer and fashion icon.
I’m pretty sure that when a young Bowie was pushing for a breakthrough in the mid-sixties as an Anthony Newley wannabe he had no masterplan. He wasn’t working towards Ziggy and world domination. He was soaking up influences and allowing something to emerge. And his influences were drawn from everywhere. He was the ultimate curator, bringing in elements from anywhere, from Japanese Kabuki to New York street mime. His magpie sense applied to people too, and in collaborations with the likes of Mick Ronson, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno and hell even Queen, he was able to pick out talents at the top of their game and allow them to take him to a higher ground than he could have managed for himself.
My favourite Bowie LP is Hunky Dory, the 1971 album where he announced himself as a major talent. Melodically and lyrically it was superb, strange and unfamiliar yet accessible and singalong. There is not a weak track on there, from the hits Changes and Life On Mars, to the rocky Queen Bitch and the deliciously dense Bewlay Brothers. But it was his next album The Fall & Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that would go stratospheric. So many people today, many stars in their own right, have said that Bowie changed their lives. If so, it was probably this album that did it. An album that changed the perceptions of what pop music could be. Equal parts musical genius and theatrical innovation, it is very difficult to hear as a young person and not be transfixed by it.
And this is Bowie’s real legacy. Yes his music was fresh, unique and brilliant. Yes, he was ultra cool and always several leaps ahead of fashion. Yes, he took pop performance to places it had never been before. But it was his influence that really sets him apart. He is in an extremely small group, probably only Elvis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan can make the same claim. They have all made great music, as have many other acts, but they have in turn inspired so many talented artists to pick up a guitar, a pen, a microphone and go out and do something special. They have all changed popular culture forever and for the better.
Music in the late twentieth century is unthinkable without the influence of Bowie. Bowie defined and virtually created Glam Rock, although he shouldn’t be held responsible for everything done in its name. Punk may have had its Year Zero ‘Kill The Hippy’ manifesto, that rejected everything that had been before. But the truth was that there wasn’t one of the original punk contingent who weren’t massive Bowie fans. Besides, you could draw a line from Bowie through the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop straight to UK punk.
The New Romantic period simply would not have existed without Bowie, and the worlds of pop and indie music would have been considerably less colourful, interesting and experimental. Part of Bowie’s appeal and one of the reasons he was so influential, was that he speaks to the misfits and the oddballs. This was never me, but these are the people that, suitably inspired and energised, go out and make the best art.
Everyone has their own David Bowie. Mine is definitely the early 70s version of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladin Sane. But others are equally attached to different incarnations. His trio of Berlin albums – Low, Heroes and Lodger – are beloved of the arty crowd, and while they largely pass me by they do contain the stunning Heroes. Very few artists could manage to create an epic that was simultaneously anthemic and understated, but Bowie carries it off and it still leaves me speechless.
Although always otherworldly and unique, he retained a core of the Beckenham boy throughout his life. He seemed to pour his weirdness into his art. Not that he was ever the normal bloke from the pub, but he never became a freak show. He remained very private off-stage, and always came across as grounded, approachable and polite. It is hard to find people from show business who speak negatively about David Bowie, although it’s probably equally as hard to find people who can say they knew him really well.
He leaves us today undoubtedly saddened, but enriched by a legacy that will live on long after his passing. His gift for self expression is limitlessly infectious, and multiple generations have been inspired by his music, his performance and his vision of what was possible.
David Bowie. Indeed a wonderful life. Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.