Interesting that the news of David Bowie’s death was first released on Twitter. Within minutes everyone from Iggy Pop to the Archbishop of Canterbury via Cher, David Cameron, Kanye West and Harry Styles were tweeting condolences and huge sadness that cancer had robbed us of such a well-beloved musician at the relatively young age of sixty-nine.
I happened to be watching ITV This Morning when the news broke and the anchors had to switch from autocue to rolling news about Bowie. The little information released on Twitter was repeated ad nauseam; interrupted only by banal platitudes such as ‘he wrote the soundtrack to our lives’.
I was fascinated to see Twitter leading television news. You could see the relief in Piers Morgan’s eyes every time someone vaguely famous tweeted something he could read-out live. As you know, I am a Twitter fiend but we’re all aware that very little of any depth can be said in 140-characters. Twitter cannot analyse the influence of an artist such as Bowie or examine his life’s work. That’s where broadcast or print journalism should steal the march.
But there was precious little analysis or intelligent comment on morning television: only various anchors, news readers and weather girls doing a riff on Twitter-speak – ’OMG, it’s a tragedy! What a legend!’ – and basically bringing the subject back to them: ‘My first David Bowie single was…’ and all that.
David Bowie deserved to dominate the news today. He profoundly influenced four decades of pop music and also fashion, film and sexual politics. Bowie’s music anticipated major movements such as punk, plastic soul, the new romantics and Berlin’s electronic synth pop. The Brixton-born David Jones was a chameleon who seemed t0 bend the zeitgeist to his will. One got the impression he didn’t give a damn about NME journalists’ opinions or the expectations of his fans. In this respect, Bowie was a truly free spirit.
Space Oddity, the song that introduced Major Tom in 1969, remains one of the great three-act opera pop songs that’s up there with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. The invention of Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars was the most extreme pop alter ego ever fashioned by a male rock star and led the Glam Rock revolution. Bowie truly did look alien with his milk-fed pallor, shocking orange hair, clownish make-up and silky, androgynous costumes designed by Ossie Clark and Mr Fish.
Though I wonder whether Bowie and his first wife Angie’s bisexuality wasn’t a pose, Ziggy was an extraordinarily sexual creature who was rather a role model for all of the gays back in the day when homosexuality had only recently been decriminalised and was still a hideous stigma in Britain.
Ziggy had to be killed-off because, as Bowie himself admitted, ‘I really did have doubts about my sanity’. This shedding of skins is what made David Bowie such an instinctive man of fashion. He was taught how to move by the great Lindsey Kemp in 1967 at the London Dance Centre where Bowie was introduced to avant-garde choreography, mime, contemporary dance and Commedia Dell’Arte.
The latter’s influence can be seen in 1981 video Ashes to Ashes featuring some of the gods and monsters who congregated at The Blitz Club in Covent Garden. Dress him as a clown, a gigolo or the Thin White Duke and Bowie always carries the clothes rather than vice versa.
Personally, I adored Bowie as the Thin White Duke. That slicked-back, Weimer Berlin look is so sharp even if Bowie’s svelte figure and gaunt face was the result of a major cocaine habit. It was during the Thin White Duke years that Bowie made some highly-publicised and ill-advised comments about Fascism. ’Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars’ was a particularly decisive comment. But as he told the NME ‘I was out of my mind, totally crazed’.
Well, David Bowie wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last rock star to lose perspective in a blizzard of coke. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bowie came through. Though the 80s were Bowie’s most commercially successful decade, I think the true fans love his 70s hits such as Starman, Fame (co-written with John Lennon), Diamond Dogs, Rebel Rebel and the ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums Low, Heroes and Lodger co-produced by Tony Visconti. One can only imagine the apartment in West Berlin that Bowie shared with Iggy Pop and Brian En0.
The 70s also saw Bowie’s best film work including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the strangely satisfying Just A Gigolo (1979) in which he plays an immaculately tailored 1920s taxi dancer employed by Marlene Dietrich in her final screen appearance. 1980s films Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Hunger, Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners and The Last Temptation of Christ are interesting choices but more distinguished as movies featuring David Bowie than film classics.
Bowie’s creative highs in the 80s are too numerous to list although Fashion, the Under Pressure duet with Queen, the Nile Rogers-produced Let’s Dance and the Mick Jagger duet Dancing in the Street for Live Aid are all absolute corkers. When he married Iman in 1992 and settled in New York, Bowie dialled-down the touring, concentrated on making music that pleased himself and only gave interviews when he wanted not when he had something to promote.
Bowie’s style was rightly celebrated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in their 2013 show David Bowie Is. The exhibit subsequently toured the world. It would be rather marvellous if David Bowie’s wardrobe past and present was donated to the V&A or the Met in New York so it can be preserved in entirety as a record of the 20th and 21st century’s most directional rock star dandy. We could be heroes? Yes you were.