David Bowie 8/1/47-10/1/16
I wasn’t planning to write about David Bowie. It didn’t feel right. I’ve been a droplet in the maelstrom of grief that has washed across the world over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve felt it too. I’ve been reminded of the many personae he donned, on and off stage; of his immense talent; of the specific songs and moments that coincided with specific moments in my life – read quotes, watched television highlights of his life, smiled and shed a tear at the crowds who gathered spontaneously to sing his songs and celebrate his life.
I’ve acknowledged the very particular moment when an eleven-year-old girl raised on classical and folk, who had little or no opinion about pop, turned on her brand new transistor radio and had her head blown clean open by Jean Genie, followed in short order by the entire gamut of rock and prog and my life was, quite literally, never the same again.
But I didn’t want to write about it. I thought I knew how I felt. I thought it would be inappropriate for me to grieve more than was reasonable about a man who, when all is said and done, I had never met. Above all, where the death of someone important to me usually presses all my poetry-writing buttons, this time I found there were no words coming. I thought I didn’t feel very much.
Back in the day, I had a few Bowie LPs. My favourites were Hunky Dory and Diamond Dogs. Later, I heard him on the radio, but the realities of my life were such that buying records (or CDs, or downloads) never made it anywhere near the top of my priority list. There were still songs that belonged to certain memories, but I didn’t own copies of them. I had only the songs that were in my head.
Yesterday in the supermarket I noticed that some record company or other had rushed out a cheap 2-CD ‘Best of’ compilation, and I put it in my basket along with the coffee and cat food and thought no more about it than ‘that’s a good idea, I don’t have any Bowie CDs’.
Now I’m playing it. And I find I do have some things to say.
The first thing is, if you haven’t listened to Bowie properly for years – if all you’ve done is watched a few reruns of Top of the Pops, enjoyed the odd retro highlight on the car radio or via your ipod, heard it come on in the background in the local garage while you’re picking up your car – do it. Sit down and listen to a track properly on your home system, full stereo, proper bass and all the works. I had quite simply forgotten just how good his production values are. The first few bars of Space Oddity are a marvel of gentle intro and stonking bass.
This is a man who maintained a fiercely private life, while giving us the full benefit of the breadth and depth of his talent. As this CD jumps wildly through his entire oeuvre, I’m astonished all over again. Every track is a half-forgotten friend, and summons up the ghost of its album. I may have to invest in some back catalogue.
And the lyrics! Dear God, I’d forgotten, if indeed I’d ever properly listened. Clever, weird, intelligent, poetic, cruel, funny. And the person he laughed at the most was himself. The man couldn’t change key without taking himself off. “Well hung and snow white tan” indeed.
Image: David Bowie performs at Tweeter Center outside Chicago in Tinley Park,IL, USA on August 8, 2002. Photo by Adam Bielawski from Wikimedia Commons.