Here on Eclectix we don’t usually write long examinations of artists and their work, preferring to let the art speak for itself, the image to be interpreted by the individual viewer… However, with the passing of David Bowie – an art movement has come to a close and the ramifications of his life compelled us to go further into this artist. He was like no other.
Above: Beautiful Bowie, a painting on wood by Patrushka
Understanding The Grief
My world has been derailed since hearing of David bowie’s death and although most the media responded immediately with sound bites and generic tributes, it has taken me much longer to fully absorb the shock of this sad news. And putting it into words even longer… A few days was nowhere near enough time to comprehend the enormity of what he meant to me personally and to our world. Even now, almost two weeks later, I am stumbling to grasp, to grok. Although I knew his death would sadden me, I was shocked how much the grief has overwhelmed me, as if I had lost a close friend or family member.
“Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone.”
Rock N’ Roll Suicide, David Bowie
Although Lennon and Cobain’s death were very sad, that grief did not immobilize me like this has. I was never one to hysterically react to celebrities death, and at the risk of seeming over reactive or self-absorbed, I feel the need to expound on his death’s impact – hoping to help myself and others come to grips with this sadness. I was personally affronted and indignant at the lack of respect shown by the boatloads of people who instantly jumped on the bandwagon to sell their Bowie-related products, tee shirts and memorabilia. One site had stuck Bowie content into their feed, just to drive traffic to sell their leather jackets! Yet commercial greed has always followed a celebrity’s death – so why the feelings of personal insult, when I’m not even a family member, why the surprise? Why weren’t the local stores paying homage to Bowie on their Muzak systems, why wasn’t there a 24 hour feed of Bowie music and interviews on the radio or TV, why was life continuing in its normal fashion? I felt silly, alone and embarrassed at my constant sobbing. In vain, I searched the web for an insightful article which summed up, explained or helped with understanding this confounding grief. What I found was an article which dismissed what we are feeling as not real grief, even condemning us as selfish and shallow.
“Grief is physical and mental pain. It’s oppression. It is, in the words of the OED, ‘hardship, suffering, injury’. To feel grief is to feel ‘pained, oppressed’. Are these Bowie fans suffering? Really suffering? No, they aren’t. They’re sad.”
Our grief is real. Granted it is not what Iman or Bowie’s children are feeling or will be feeling for years to come. Which is part of the reason I found these painful feelings lingering day after day, so confusing. However, it is authentic misery, accompanied by confusion, sleeplessness, immobility, loss of appetite and pain…. perhaps if we had somewhere to come together to honor his passing and support each other, it would help. But for the most part we are spread all over the country, not living near his homes in NYC or London. Individually isolated, we may feel pathetic about our continued tears, as if we are drama queens looking for some reason to draw attention to ourselves.
For those of us who came from non-existent or dysfunctional families – Bowie was a family member. He was always there with his inspiration, visions, love and compassion. I’ve cried more over his death than the death of my own mother or other close friends… that’s how strong a connection he imbued. He was our father, our sister, our brother, our mother… summing up in his lyrics our personal journeys, trials and tribulations year after year. He was our best friend showing us new makeup tips, our gay queen teaching us how to be swishy in our satin and tat, our diary holding our hearts when they broke. He supported us in time of need, he hugged us when our Mothers didn’t, made us feel wanted and accepted, inspired us to live, to grow and create, to walk tall and act fine.
The Arts of Bowie
The last week has been spent immersed in his music and apocalyptic scenarios, his persona, his interviews, online news, video clips and most of all – David Bowie’s art. He was a creative artist first and foremost (starting with art school) – and it spanned all mediums, whether it was in songwriting, musicianship, lyrics, performance, fashion, theater, visual fine art or musical production – he was an astute conceptualist who was always creating. He had a sharp eye with keen perception. His work pulled on the distinctions between surface and substance, image and content, incorporating and embracing contradictions. His fantastic vocals caressed us, molested us and left us begging for more. His lyrics were multilayered, often subtly ironic which took intelligence to gleam. Both art and popular entertainment are ingrained in what David Bowie did. Artists from all walks of life have become avid followers, inspired to create their own works, often reflecting his influence whether audio or visual.
It is important to note that (for the most part), Bowie was one of the few artists who refused to regurgitate his more successful styles, even in the face of more popularity and prosperity for himself. Nowadays, we often want the same safe predictable thing from artists – we want a Jack Johnson song to sound like a Jack Johnson song, or a Warhol to look like a Warhol – there is little acceptance for an artist to evolve. We want a predictable brand to repeat itself, to deliver the same thing over and over. Yet, that expectation flies in the face of all that true artistry is about – growth and change. What if Picasso had never had his Blue Period – would he still have gone on to create his incredible Guernica? Artists need to change in order to stay vital.
Bowie was all about taking chances and changing, as witnessed by his multitude of personas adopted for various artistic periods. Bowie has stated that he was extremely shy and suffered from stage fright, which was why he invented roles to perform behind. The media either thru dim-wittedness or just plain stubborn ignorance, refused to listen to his repeated response – that Ziggy was just a “character” created by Bowie and not David Bowie, the man himself. He refused to stick with the safe popular icon he had created, in fact killed him off, in order to pursue and produce other variations of expression.
And those personas, those roles he played – they were all of us, shining and glittering in our best and worst moments. From hippy dippy youngster to glam rocked spaceman, from the drugged out thin man to the clean-cut dancing American, from the middle-aged parent to that final death stare. Throughout our lives, each one of us changes, we all take on different roles, there’s nothing strange in that. Bowie just exemplified those changes, he was a mirror to ourselves – the selves we were or wanted to become.
“David Bowie’s androgynous appearance, his interstellar motifs, and his mind-bending visuals set standards that an unsuspecting public didn’t notice were being set. He pulled audiences across genres toward him, at a time when music was pushed out to targeted demographics in stratified categories that now seem antiquated.” - Matthew Trammell
His track ‘Telling Lies’ in 1996 was one of the first songs by a major act to be put out as an online-only release, and in 1998, Bowie launched his own subscription-based internet service. Offering dial-up access to the emerging online world, BowieNet was the first artist-created internet service provider. Always innovative and ahead of the times, Bowie jumped into the digital age before the vast majority of the music business, speaking out on the Internet’s effect on careers, in 2002.
’‘I don’t even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don’t think it’s going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way,” he said. ‘‘The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.”
”Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity…” - Via the NY Times
When asked if there was any thread that links his work throughout his career Bowie replied, “it’s the realization, to me at least, that I’m most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation . . .. The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It’s not at all like real life.”
A lifelong collaborator, he excelled at picking artists with their own style and sound to complement his vision. Although he may have directed the artistic outcome, he always was open and usually embraced others ideas and skill sets, not letting a rock star ego get in the way. Read any number of the recollections out there by his cohorts and they all confirm his geniality. A partial list includes: Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Nile Rogers, Goldie, Arcade Fire, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, Queen, Mick Jagger, Klaus Nomi, Marianne Faithful, Hunt and Tony Sales, Mick Ronson, John Lennon, Carlos Alomar, Tony Viconti, Mott The Hoople, Pete Townsend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Fripp, Adrain Belew, Peter Frampton and Marc Bolan.
If you were the lucky generation to have grown up with Bowie – his visionary songwriting was the soundtrack for our lives, supplying line after line of emotive capsules which sprinkle our daily lives. Anthemic masterpieces which brought tears to our eyes, summing up so much and then some more. Always – a relentless quest for self truth and a spiritual meaning to life. Never – with boring imagery.
Understanding Bowie’s Influence
For the current younger generation to understand Bowie’s influence, more than a few areas need to be explained and hopefully understood. First, they must try really hard to imagine a world without the internet, a world without 300 cable TV stations, a world without cell phones and instant updates, a world without hundreds of connections to friends and strangers through social media. I don’t know if this is even possible – it’s hard even for me to imagine and I can remember that pre-computer world!
The news was delivered by a newspaper, usually about 6-12 hours after the fact or by a TV station of which there were only around 13 channels in total, 4 of which may have had news programs. The TV channels were hand changed, by a dial on the TV itself and often with fuzzy or stat-icy reception. The telephone was usually one land line per household, shared by all who lived there. The only immediate media delivery was the radio and once again, the kind of programming you were able to receive was determined by your locality. If you lived outside major cities, your “feed” was often narrow-minded small town talk, country music, religious dogma or the bland top 40 pop playlists. Underground, alternative radio was just beginning to form and the stations were few and far apart. Your “friends” really were your friends, you knew them face to face and they were usually your neighbors or schoolmates. If they were bigots and hypocrites, too bad, you were stuck with them until you got the hell out of Dodge. Connecting with other artsy outsider types was difficult – concerts and record stores were about the only place to congregate…
There was no search engine available for content or imagery, if you wanted to find out about something you had to consult a set of encyclopedias, (in your own home, if you were lucky). And they were only updated/reprinted about once a year, hence constantly out of date. The local library was your closest source for any research and it was limited by open hours, funding and inventory. If you wanted a picture of say Ziggy Stardust – you couldn’t just Google it on a handheld device, much less listen to a whole song off the album. You had to consult the library or news stands or hope a friend had the album you could listen to.
As rock and roll became more mainstream, things changed and other more obscure artists were played, especially on FM stations (as opposed to the top 40 on AM stations). This was where I first heard a Bowie song and it blew all the other music out of the water. I was in line at the record stores for every album after that. His sound was unique, his voice crooning in emotive heartache, his narrative lyrics visionary – full of vivid imagery, symbolism, subtle hints and in-your-face counter-culture slang. He was our internet in a way, a kind-of news feed to our own maturing youth, speaking for the alienated and the isolated, the lonely misfits. All his subjects resonated emotionally in a heartfelt way. He helped define our fashion, our media, our thoughts and our culture. He opened my eyes, my ears and my mind…
Resolute humanity and compassion were at the core of Bowie’s life and works, speaking out against fascism, violence and prejudice in his songs and in his daily life. (Worth a read here - Bowie: A World Class Humanitarian.) His performance at the Live Aid charity concert in 1985, remains the largest simultaneous rock concert TV audience of all time.
From what I’ve read on the web, Bowie has also helped out many a friend in different ways over the years. When Mott The Hoople was ready to pack it in due to failing sales, Bowie who loved the band, offered them his song “All The Young Dudes” and offered to produce their next album. It became their biggest hit ever in England. Rumor has it that when Lou Reed was down and out on drugs in New York, Bowie along with Ronson came to his aid, producing and singing on the album “Transformer”. It is Lou Reed’s best ever solo album. George Underwood, Bowie’s band mate and life long friend (the one who punched him and gave him the stink eye) was supported by Bowie throughout his own fight with prostate cancer. Bowie befriended an embattled, drug-addicted Iggy Pop in the mid 1970s and helped him rebound from the Stooges’ breakup by producing both of his acclaimed 1977 solo albums – The Idiot and Lust For Life.
Bowie’s friends and band mates were always a diverse crew and his challenge to MTV for not playing black artists back in 1983 is sublime, (video link here). Bowie cast Aboriginal and white Australians in the “Let’s Dance” music video to critique opression in Australia. He had mixed color relationships before it was hip and finally married the love of his life Iman, herself a huge humanitarian in her own right, as an ambassador for The Children’s Defense Fund, Action Against Hunger, and Raise Hope for Congo.
There’s been a lot written on the gender bending aspect of Bowie’s music, almost as if that is his only legacy, so I’d like to touch on the more fringe elements that set him apart. He helped break down boundaries, rebelling against the status quo of sexual roles and sexism. Yes, he was sexy – for both sexes. But love was his main ingredient, love for all – black or white, rich or poor, boy or girl. He was private, gentle, kind, sensitive and pretty when men were supposed to be (and usually were) the exact opposite. He was a defender of women, a feminist in speech and deeds, celebrating the tomboy, the suffragette and early on calling attention to domestic abuse, (read the words to “Repetition”, off of Lodger, here).
Bowie wasn’t perfect, he made mistakes and admitted it, always professing he is just human and refusing the labels of “hero” or “icon”. Without hitting us over the head with political ideology he touched on social taboos, politics and world order, he asked questions, encouraging us to think and explore outside that rigid box of mass media, expected conformity and respectability. And he was here for so so long – doing all of the above, decade after decade, so that he became a woven part of our lives tapestry through-out the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s, 90′s and on into this century. Influencing us for much longer and in more ways than Lennon or Cobain or Winehouse… which probably helps explain why our grief is so overwhelming.
Intelligent, eloquent and well-read, Bowie often ran sarcastic circles way over the top of his interviewer’s head. He wasn’t afraid to explore philosophical quandaries in public or make fun of them. Laughing easily, he was extremely funny, with a quick sarcastic wit laced with silly slapstick humor. ( just Google “Bowie funny” on YouTube…)
The Humblest Star
Even as his fame and celebrity grew, Bowie seemed to stay warmly humble and gracious – rarely letting his ego overwhelm or dominate. It’s almost impossible to find anyone who talks badly of Bowie and that is a very rare thing, for such a famous guy. This aspect alone garners much respect and the truth is in the pudding. I had a chance to actually meet Bowie, around 1991, on a friend’s film set in LA. I worshipped at the altar of all things Bowie and was a nervous wreck, knowing I was to meet my ultimate muse. He was engaging, friendly and lacked any pretense, warmly greeting me and making small talk – showing true interest in what I had to say. After meeting many famous people, who for the most part were full of themselves and a big let down, it was truly wonderful to have Bowie live up to my expectations…
In 2003 Bowie rejected a knighthood in recognition of “having a major contribution” to British life which was “inspirational and significant… over a long period of time.” While musical pals Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Mick Jagger are among the few rock stars who have accepted the award, Bowie declined, saying: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”
Last Words, Some Tributes Worth Reading
“Removing David Bowie from the last half-century of pop would result in its edges being less pointed, its colors being less vibrant, its playfulness being reined in sharply; talking about how Bowie influenced it is like talking about how oxygen affects the breathing process.” - Maura Johnston, Noisey
“As a black man in America, there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of being black. It has nothing to do with me. Some people are just uncomfortable with my presence. It’s never gone away. With Bowie, though, I never felt that at all. He made Let’s Dance with me and guys that he never even met, but he had enough faith to allow me to completely take over. He was like, “Nile, take my vision and make it real. You be the empresario.” - Nile Rodgers
“I think his death is a seismic event for artists, and it came at an amazing time because he is proof that the answer to success in music is creativity, not branding. What’s his brand? His brand is change. That’s such an inspiring thing for artists. And it’s an inspiring time for music, really. He curated his life from beginning to end with no commitment to changing trends, but rather just to being authentic. If authenticity is the god you serve, it doesn’t matter if somebody crapped on your last record or not. You’re always on a journey that’s a journey for truth.” – Cameron Crowe
“David Bowie had everything. He was intelligent, imaginative, brave, charismatic, cool, sexy and truly inspirational both visually and musically. He created such staggeringly brilliant work, yes, but so much of it and it was so good. There are great people who make great work but who else has left a mark like his? No one like him.” - Kate Bush
“This is a blog post about the death of David Bowie. But it isn’t about that. It’s more selfish than that. It’s embarrassingly self-indulgent. It’s about the death of David Bowie and the way that I reacted to that horrible fact. I’ve never experienced grief like this about a public figure before. But I have experienced grief. And I recognise that this is grief. And it hurts. It hurts so much.” - James Ward
“No other artist has made music that has revealed itself to me over time the way that his music has. He is the master painter…and I’m like the student over in the corner trying to learn something from him and paint my own tiny little canvas. I keep hearing a lot of people say things like “David Bowie made it OK to just be yourself”…and while I think that’s a great sentiment, it feels a little off to me. David Bowie was the guy that made it OK for you to be your ideal self—your imagined self, your self in space, your self as a superman. I love him for that.” - Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox
“Rock ‘N Roll With Me”
You always were the one that knew
They sold us for the likes of you
I always wanted new surroundings
A room to rent while the lizards lay crying in the heat
Trying to remember who to meet, I would take a foxy kind of stand
While tens of thousands found me in demand
When you rock ‘n’ roll with me
No one else I’d rather be
Nobody here can do it for me
I’m in tears again
When you rock ‘n’ roll with me
Gentle hearts are counted down
The queue is out of sight and out of sounds
Me, I’m out of breath, but not quite doubting
I’ve found a door which lets me out!
- David Bowie -