My cousin Claire was a huge David Bowie fan. I remember seeing all of his albums in her house at one of those Christmas parties the family used to have. The parents, the aunts and uncles, in the good room laughing and joking and eventually singing (“JERUSALEM!”), and all us cousins, ranging in age, cast upstairs to entertain ourselves (which usually involved one of them pilfering some of the booze).
The one that stuck in my mind was Heroes. This slightly alien looking figure on the front, this awkward pose, it was weird and fascinating, and I guess perhaps it was timely that Let’s Dance came out when I was just 12. Right at that age when you’re trying to find out what it is in music that you can get into.
Maybe it’s still the case but I grew up at a time when you had to be something. You were a rocker, a pretend punk (it had long passed at that point) or a Cure-head or metaller or whatever, and I wasn’t any of them. I did have the potential to style my quiff into something quite Morrissey if I’d wanted but I didn’t want, I liked the songs but they didn’t speak to me like they did to others.
But Bowie was the man, and I suppose it’s absolutely fitting that an album released in 1983 in which he collaborated with Nile Rogers from Chic was the thing to get me into him properly. It was commercial, accessible, and catapulted him to a new level of worldwide fame. His previous record, ‘Scary Monsters, Super Creeps’, had seen him take elements of new wave, new romanticism, yet this, three years later, was pure pop with a side of disco-funk in places – Bowie ever the chameleon.
Now, that’s not to say this was the best thing ever because the 80s was not Bowie at his best. The attempts to straddle the new, emerging world of MTV always felt a bit uncomfortable. His videos were often fantastic, the songs that went with them not so much, but like a footballer there was an element of class being permanent, and form being temporary. After that dip his trajectory went back to other way – culminating in the release of a quite brilliant album just two days ago.
As a teenager I devoured his back catalogue. Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Diamond Dogs, the progression of a folk/rocker quite obvious. Then he gave us Young Americans, a soul record with people like Luther Vandross on backing vocals, with John Lennon roped into proceedings too. In the mid 70s he went to Berlin with Iggy Pop, a bleak time in what was then a somewhat bleak place, and created a trio of albums that capture time and place and the sound of the world.
Low, Heroes and Lodger tested the listener again. If you were into guitar riffs and rock and roll and managed to figure out how soul music, saxophones and gospel influences worked, you then had to try and process electronics, synthesizers and bizarre cut-up lyrics. Ziggy played guitar but then he created the most desolate sounding electro-classical ‘Warszawa’, the second side of Low a challenge after the noisy but jaunty Sound and Vision style on the first.
But that’s what he did. He challenged you as a listener, because he challenged himself as an artist. Drum and Bass in the 90s, not my thing. I was more into piano house tunes, but if Bowie does it you have to listen. Tin Machine? Again, when it boils right down to it this was a man doing what he wanted to do, regardless of the critical and commercial reaction.
Throughout the 90s, and early 2000s the output continued and then stopped in 2003. It seemed that that was it, until, in very Bowie fashion, a new album dropped in 2013. How, in this day and age, he had managed to write, rehearse, record and produce an album without anyone getting wind of it is one of the most David Bowie things ever. Great songs, brilliant videos, he was back.
And now he’s gone.
I’ve seen him live a few times. From the overblown Glass Spider in Slane in 1987, to big arenas in Dublin, and one night he played in this venue in town called the Academy on Middle Abbey Street. I can’t remember how I got wind of it, it wasn’t announced as it was some kind of rehearsal gig, and I ended up there on my own. This was a very small room (especially when you consider who was on stage), and I ended standing just feet away from him. It’s still burned into my brain to this day. There was eye contact at one stage. I probably just made a stupid face as I tried to tell him I loved him with my eyes.
And now he’s gone.
The word ‘genius’ is bandied about rather too easily this day. Some twat back-heels a flukey goal and he’s a genius and it’s genius. Nonsense. But David Bowie was the true measure of the word. A man whose work and art spanned five decades. A man who, like all of us, had his ups and downs, but those downs were never enough to taint the truly great stuff that did.
I hope you’ll forgive me the indulgence this morning. I know it’s not Arsenal, but I feel like I’ve lost a hero, and the world has too. And this can be Bowie blog, just for one day.
And if you’re a Bowie fan, this is quite simply the best website you’ll ever find about his music and songs.
Peace and love.