Monday, January 11, 2016

RIP David Bowies

David Bowie, who died yesterday at the age of 69, meant - and continues to mean - a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

For many, he was a jumpsuited glam-rock icon, like Marc Bolan but freakier; for others, he was the pop mastermind behind such hits of the '80s as Let's Dance and Ashes to Ashes. Still others will remember him primarily as the man who did that 'Major Tom' song, or perhaps as the English guy who cut a Christmas single with Bing Crosby, or even as the baddie from Labyrinth.

Heck, there are probably *some* people out there who first heard of Bowie in that one episode of Flight of the Conchords.

This, I suppose, is par for the course when you spend your entire career reinventing and reimagining yourself at every turn. Few other artists have so warmly embraced the idea that every new album should bring something new to the table, that each project should exist in its own fully-realised little world rather than being a meek continuation of what came before it. Though I don't wish to appease those insufferable fandoms whose memes clutter my Facebook feed every evening, David Bowie really is like a musical, real-world version of The Doctor from Doctor Who; one extraordinary man cycling through countless different incarnations, miraculously regenerating at the end of each tour.

Perhaps that's part of why Bowie's death came as such a shock to his fans: they've seen Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, and all his other personas pass from this world, but it's kind of unthinkable that the man himself is really dead.

Though it's comforting to know that he wasn't a Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, and that he "died peacefully...surrounded by his family".

So what did that man mean to me? Which Bowie was 'my' Bowie?

Well, there are kind of two answers to that question. By the time I was properly getting into music, Bowie had fallen into that vast canyon that separated his 23rd album (Reality, 2003) from his surprise comeback (The Next Day, 2013). The David Bowie of the mid- to late-noughties was rather a recluse, emerging only occasionally to express his fondness for (and occasionally sing with) bands like the Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

That, in one respect, was the Bowie I grew up with: the mysterious legend, hiding away from the public eye and plotting who knows what. Shamefully, my forays into his extensive back catalogue never took me in too deep; in fact, the only Bowie albums I've ever heard in full are Hunky Dory, "Heroes", and this one:

Which brings me to my second answer, my true answer. Of all his costumes, characters and alter-egos, Ziggy Stardust will always be the one I picture when I picture David Bowie.

Now, I really don't classify myself as a Bowie fan - if I were, I'd probably own more than two of his CDs (I'm afraid "Heroes", which rather disappointed the high expectations I'd built upon its title track, ended up being sold at a car boot sale). However, I would absolutely call myelf a Ziggy Stardust fan. It's a hell of an album, and even if those 11 tracks were the sum total of my familiarity with the man who performed them, I'd still have been saddened by the news that's dominated the internet and the radio waves today.

The great thing about The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is the way it manages to tell an engaging, emotive story without getting too bogged down in narrative bric-a-brac. As much as I love The Wall (and, um, tolerate Tommy), the albums that usually spring to mind when you see the phrase 'rock opera' share one fatal Achilles' heel: tracks like Bring the Boys Back Home and It's a Boy and especially bloody Tommy's Holiday Camp, all of which forget that the best albums, in addition to being deep and meaningful and complex, tend to be chock-full of excellent songs as well.

On Ziggy Stardust, Bowie made no such concessions to context, and yet the resulting record still stands out in my mind as one of the all-time classic concept albums. Without ever feeling too staged or too preciously plotted, Ziggy's progression (from mankind's last shining hope to a washed-up, washed-out wreck) is easy to follow; you don't need to be explicity told that Moonage Daydream heralds Ziggy's flamboyant arrival on Earth, or that Suffragette City is the point at which things frantically unravel, because you can hear it in the nuance of the music itself.

And Lady Stardust is, like, the chilled-out, good-times song, the Everything's Alright calm before the Damned for All Time storm.

Bowie obviously loved big, pretentious concepts, but unlike many of his '70s peers, he never let those concepts steal the spotlight from his songs. His best works were theatrical and dramatic in themselves, which minimised the need for exposition and explanation. When you listen to Life On Mars?, it doesn't matter that he's singing "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" and other such nonsense, because you can sort of feel the story unfolding behind it all.

The world needs more people who know how to turn big ideas into pop songs that everyone finds appealing. David Bowie was one of those people and that, for me, is why his passing yesterday was such a sad moment for popular music.

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