Well, today started off on an awful note. I woke up at my normal hour after a particularly banal dream to a string of texts from a variety of people, many of whom hadn’t been in touch for years. I immediately knew something was awry.
Scrolling through the messages, I pieced together that something had happened to David Bowie. Whether it was good or bad news wasn’t immediately obvious. The first was actually from my mum. “Have you seen the news about Bowie?” it read. My immediate hope was that he would be touring again – it was nice my mum thought it was such urgent news! This was ambushed by the slow realisation of what had happened. He wouldn’t be touring again. He had passed away after an 18 month battle with liver cancer.
Devastated just doesn’t cover it.
The following is going to be a cathartic and self-indulgent diarised memory of me discovering David Bowie as an artist, character and chameleon.
David Bowie has been a part of my life for a very long time. I would still be classed as a relative newcomer to the party. My first memory of him was listening to ‘Little Wonder’ on one of those cheap compilation double CDs that were the rage when I was younger. This isn’t his best song by a long way, though it is a great example of him producing something special and cutting edge in a genre previously unfamiliar to him. At the time, of course, I didn’t really think that, though I was probably influenced by the fact the CD didn’t even list him on the front cover of the album as one of the top artists (Gina G, 3T and Mark Morrison did make the cut). He was just some old guy doing weird dance music that I didn’t understand.
As time went on, I began to see his influence more and more. Oasis covered “Heroes” as the b-side to ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ in 1997. Nirvana covered ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ for the MTV Unplugged in New York album, which I picked up when I reached my angsty phase (which lasted, all told, about six months). I was absorbing the snippets I was hearing but not really taking the bate.
When the album Heathen was released in 2002, it had a quality that finally made me take notice. The song ‘Slow Burn’ was a regular on UK radio stations and that alone convinced me to pick it up. It was Bowie’s 22nd album but it was my first Bowie album. Sitting alongside Gemma Hayes, Elbow and Doves, my year in music was certainly very melancholic and reflective; the tones reflecting the mood of the world in 2001 when most of the songs were written and recorded. This formed the soundtrack to my A-Level studies.
Slowly working backwards and learning more and more about Bowie, I was able to reward my patience with a thorough look at his different periods as I discovered them. This was a deliberate choice. That’s one of the great things about discovering an older artist – they usually have years of releases that you can pick up as you read more about them. So if, as I did, you get stuck on Hunky Dory for a whole year, then you don’t need to worry as the other 20+ albums will wait for you to finish with it.
As time progressed, I become progressively more aware that everything had gone quiet on the Bowie front. After two albums in quick succession (Heathen was followed shortly after by 2003’s Reality), I’d managed to sweep up the last of the Bowie albums by around 2010. Somewhat inevitably this went to the much derided Never Let Me Down from 1987, an album that I felt had merits but lacked any reason to hold my attention beyond his better work.
Now well versed in Bowie’s music, it dawned on me that the length of time he’d been away from the music scene could be construed as him having retired without really telling anyone. If he’s retired, then that meant he probably wouldn’t tour again. Had I missed my chance to see The Thin White Duke? Surely not.
I began to think back to when I had considered going to see him during his Reality tour. My friends and I were debating which music festival to go to. The choice was either V Festival or T in the Park. We opted for the former, getting a day ticket to see Dido and Muse. Yep. That actually happened. As it turned out, Bowie pulled out of T in the Park due to ill health and he never toured again.
I will forever regret never getting to see Bowie live. But it is something I have come to terms with over the last ten years.
When Bowie announced a surprise album in 2013, it almost felt like a hoax. Out of the blue on 8th January, a new single titled ‘Where Are We Now?’ was delivered to radio stations across the world and played simultaneously. For a surprise return to the music industry, it was a far cry from anything that could be considered immediate or upbeat. This, I’d come to learn, was typical Bowie.
Given that Bowie was now effectively a recluse, he had taken on the kind of godlike status usually afforded only to artists that had already passed away. Nobody thought they’d hear from him again. In a way The Next Day felt like the first posthumously released album put out during an artist’s lifetime. It was a wonderful present to fans old and new, many of whom were in the exact same boat as myself.
Blackstar was announced in November and was set for release on 8th January 2016. It arrived with no special mention of what was going on behind the scenes. A couple of weird videos with a hard to decipher message, the usual Bowie-esque ambiguities in the lyrics. It is a fantastic album and I listened to it almost non-stop for the first weekend of release.
Then on the morning of 11th January the news of Bowie’s death hit the world and suddenly the content of the album all fell into place. He had written and recorded his own obituary and released it to the world without anyone realising.
And with that, Bowie confirmed himself as one of the most confident artists of all time. Who else in the history of music would look on his own death as his final chameleonic transformation?
Today has been a day that may have started off in a depressing manner, but became one of listening, watching and consuming all things Bowie. It has been a completely beautiful experience. A sad but beautiful experience.