I never connected hard with David Bowie’s music. It’s one of the great misses of my musical life. For those of us who were not experiencing pop music when he was performing wrenching transformations on it with his bare hands in the early 70s, we had to wait for a way in, and for me that never came. I had friends who were into almost everything else, but none who wanted to impress Bowie on me. He was around in the early 80s, when I was fresh for imprinting. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ freaked me out as a nine year-old, partly because of the enduring image of a radioactive clown about to be crushed by a bulldozer. That song, above any others, has stayed with me and still transports me back to a time where I was discovering that music could change my world.
I envy those many millions who did get Bowie. His records and the worlds he built around them were clearly so rich, so rewarding, so deeply meaningful for those who immersed themselves that I know I have missed something that I will never know. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years, as many of my favourite artists and writers began to look back to Bowie, to reminisce about him as a past force rather than a current one (before his wonderfully successful re-emergence in 2013) that I really felt the size and shape of this absence. To hear Adam and Joe, for instance, discussing Bowie as a figure they obsessed over as teenage boys, is to hear the strange sounds coming from a club you will never be able to join.
I wish I had really fallen for the music, so much of which I really like, but of course there is still time, in theory, for that to happen. Perhaps even more I wish I had been there at the time to fall hard for Bowie the artist. The lessons he taught the generation lucky enough to be turned on to him as Ziggy Stardust and to follow him through Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and beyond were truly life-changing. Lessons about defying convention, being yourself, living your own life, and then embracing reinvention to live a completely different one. From the vantage point of the new millennium, Bowie’s peerless influence on Western culture is clear, unassailable and incredibly positive. He opened up worlds of possibility and entire generations followed him and populated those worlds. I may not have genuinely loved his music, but it is likely responsible for a good 60% of the music that I do love, so much of which would not have been conceivable without him. To my mind he has had a career that no-one else in the history of popular music can come close to rivaling in the breadth of its achievements. No-one else has gone on for so long, built guise after guise, created art so fearlessly and done it for so very long without ever settling back and trading on past glories. Not Elvis, not the Beatles, not Dylan, not anyone.
In thinking about the artists that I did give my heart to as a younger man, I’m forced to reflect that to some extent I chose heroes that I either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to emulate. Captain Beefheart. Mark E Smith. Nick Cave. Bob Dylan. Lou Reed. Ian Curtis. Morrissey. It seems to me that all of these were wildly iconoclastic, inventive, shocking, one-off dead-ends. No-one can follow any of these heroes, because they each identified new cultural territory and then filled it. The only exceptions I could come up with this afternoon were JG Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. Perhaps writers are different.
Bowie, however, opened up new worlds and then the hordes piled in behind him and built entire cultures. He was, perhaps more than any of the guiding lights in my own firmament, a leader.