David Bowie died last night.
I have disliked David Bowie’s music for a lot longer than I have liked it. Fortunately, I think, the disliking came first. I was first exposed to Bowie as a very small kid, when ‘Space Oddity’ was a hit in the early 70s. It unnerved me, the same way the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ unnerved me. These were songs about giving up control, giving up identity, turning into someone else. As a small boy, for one reason or another, I didn’t like the sound of that.
I missed out on Bowie’s great exploratory 70s music, being firmly a follower of my brother’s own taste, which in those years meant mostly Status Quo: meat’n’potatoes entry-level rock. When I began to develop my own likes and dislikes, in my very early teens, it coincided with learning the guitar, which meant an awful lot of dogged listening to Eric Clapton because for me he had some kind of educational significance. (I don’t regret learning to play Clapton-style guitar, but I do regret a lot of glum listening to his boring 70s and 80s albums.) Just as I got into livelier music, in the form of Talking Heads and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, Bowie was deep into his blandest, least interesting 80s pop star phase. I was not impressed. When Tin Machine came along, I was even less impressed; it looked like a naked bid for coolness. Dave Fanning, on his radio show, which I was then an avid listener to, called it ‘David Bowie’s latest incredible stab at credibility’, and he didn’t mean it in a nice way. Bowie in 1991 seemed like a burnout. Like the Rolling Stones, only pretentious.
I don’t think I really caught up with Bowie until the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. At that concert, he and Annie Lennox sang a majestic version of ‘Under Pressure’ which still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. Even then, I wasn’t compelled to listen to more Bowie, but I was willing to recognise that ‘Ashes to Ashes’ had something going on in it, and I’d listen to anything Fripp played on, so ‘Fashion’ was a favourite track of mine, featuring as it does some of Fripp’s most unhinged guitar playing. Then Nirvana, who I’d never liked much, did ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and did it beautifully, and I realised that I had to think again about Bowie.
I had to fall in love and get married to a Bowie-liker before I truly saw how wrong I had been. My wife Ioanna had a Bowie compilation CD and we would play it in the car when we took our infant daughter on drives. On hearing ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’, I began to realise that this was something like nothing else, something weirdly unique and wonderful.
And so I completely changed my mind about Bowie, which I’ve never done about anyone, I don’t think. I listened to Station to Station and Low and while they didn’t quite grab me as albums, their high points pierced me the way the best popular music does.
Bowie’s combination of naked emotionalism placed within a strangely askew frame was entirely his. He was as unique in his way as Thelonious Monk, and like Monk he had the ability to sound like no-one else, and to take somebody else’s song and make it sound like his. (He was unlike Monk in that sometimes, between around 1983 and 1991, he didn’t sound like anyone in particular, but even then, there were moments: ‘Loving the Alien’ is a crappy song, but only Bowie could have written it.)
I was surprised to find myself very sad to hear that he’d died. Bowie made his decisive moves with the left hand; he stole his way into your affections, sometimes literally. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought that he ripped his entire vocal approach off from John Lennon.) With Bowie dead, at the premature-for-an-aging-rock-star age of 69, it feels like a little bit of surprise has gone from the world. But his strange and wonderful career is still there.
I’d like to end with Scott Walker’s lovely tribute to Bowie on Bowie’s 50th birthday, which, as you can hear, left the recipient, for once in his life, speechless.