Wednesday, 4 January 2017

"Something happened on the day he died..." Some Personal Thoughts about David Bowie, a Year after His Death.

A picture from Bowie's last official photo shoot. © Jimmy King, 2015

I'm writing this at the other end of the year - actually in 2017, but at the end of the year that's passed since David Bowie died. By common consensus, 2016 was a pretty dreadful twelve months, in which frightening political events and trends seemed reflected by the deaths of so many artists and celebrities who were - are - important to so many of us. In my personal experience, though, the only one of those deaths that affected me deeply, almost as if he were someone I knew, was the first. David Bowie died on 10 January 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Even I, a fan since 1982, was surprised by the media shockwave that resulted, and the genuine grief that it triggered in many, including at least one of my friends. It's almost as if I assumed I was the only one who felt that way about him. And I think that's because when I first discovered him in my teens, I really was the only person I knew who did. I was that socially isolated, although starting to emerge at last from several years of self-protective hibernation.

Except for the first few weeks, though, I haven't felt as sad about David's loss as others seem to have done. I haven't passed through any grieving process - not unless it's a very unusual one. I do still feel strange when I reflect that there's no longer a David Bowie in the world, because it seems so counterintuitive. There's always been David Bowie; he was always alive, seemed so full of life. Perhaps that's why, during the past decade, I always got a shock when I saw recent pictures of him, and realised that he was looking his age. It must have reminded me that one day he was going to be gone. And that's the counterintuitive part: he seemed eternally young, so vitally and creatively alive. Even if he wasn't always making albums, he was still around somewhere. Mostly he was in Greenwich Village, or in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock. But he was also in my head, even though I didn't think of him that often. Because he was there - very much so - at the beginning of my delayed social adolescence, when I began to thaw out and live and, to some extent at least, join my teenaged peers in the human race. In the Bowie-shaped cluster of neurons that forms my deepest memories of him, “it's always 1982” ('Slip Away’, from the Heathen album). Or it was until recently.

The following is a collection of bits I wrote in the weeks following his death - on Facebook mostly, sometimes shared privately with just one friend or two. I hoped eventually to write something bigger about Bowie's importance in my life, so I kept them, pasted into a draft email to myself. They're organised only by chronology, slightly edited, and form the first part of my reflective/celebratory piece about this unique and extraordinary popular artist. The second part will be a personal response to experiencing (twice) his crowning creative achievement: the almost indescribable multimedia musical play, Lazarus.

But for now, back to the start of that collective annus horribilis.

16 January 2016

The memories David's death stir in me are rather lonely ones, I guess. I never dressed as Ziggy, I was never a space cadet, I never went to clubs. But I discovered Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust at the age of 16, and soon after that Let's Dance came out. I was hooked, and rapidly became what must have been the biggest Bowie fan in St Albans. I could not have been more obsessed. Mostly I just listened compulsively to his albums in my bedroom, but I also remember the multiple groans in the 6th form common room every time I put Low or Young Americans on the record player (yes, those were the days of 6th forms, and common rooms, and record players - and people talked instead of being absorbed in their phones!) I remember one girl, though, appreciating it. "Everyone else plays such rubbish, and here you are educating us with David Bowie!"

I didn't have many friends back then; I was slowly coming out of my shell. Looking back though, it was a time when I was beginning to feel really alive, and Bowie was the soundtrack to that. Whether I was stamping my feet alone at bus stops and singing Starman into the night, or going crazy to Modern Love at the first teenage parties I ever got invited to. Although he's done a whole lot more since then (including much that he's still not given enough credit for), I forever associate Bowie's music with that time, when I hardly listened to anything else.

After that my musical loves became vastly more diverse. But apart from the classical composers, probably only Kate Bush has struck such deep chords in me, to the point of real obsession. I don't listen to either of them as much now (there's too much other music!), but I would never dream of purging them from my music collection - there isn't a single album by either of them that I haven't bought and played - apart from The Next Day, which was a birthday gift.

Blackstar arrived from Amazon a week ago; I listened to it once and on a first impression thought it was Bowie's best since Heathen. The following day my partner told me the news of his death. Even though I'd felt he was suddenly looking his age, it was still kind of hard to believe he was dead - partly because he was always moving. Musically, stylistically, physically, in his thoughts, interests and words. Now that he's been cremated, it feels even more final. He's really gone - except for the songs, which are quite a legacy.

25 January 2016

I was reading his Wikipedia entry last night and it gave me a weird feeling that it was all written in the past tense. Facebook seems much quieter about him now, but he's still very frequently on my mind. Listened to Blackstar again yesterday, planning on Station to Station today. I don't feel particularly sad anymore except when I think of the fear he must have felt at times, and Lexi still really a child. In an interview in 2002 he said that leaving his daughter was one of the things he feared about death. But I just feel like playing his music, celebrating his creativity. Something which I haven't done in a long time.

His death has made me think of mortality generally, including my own. How little time might be left. I'll be 69 in only 19 years, which will probably fly by. And I'm sure David planned on having a few more years left yet. It's all a bit scary when I think about it.

“Love me, love me, love me, love me, say you do…”

The Station to Station cover of Wild is the Wind meant a great deal to me as a young adult. I was in love, and so incapacitatingly shy from years of bullying and other stuff that I couldn't say anything to the girl I yearned for. This song was a kind of safety valve for some of my feelings; if not for music, I don't know what I'd have done. As for Bowie's interpretation, I still think it's amazing that he should choose an old standard to close such a modern sounding, forward looking album - and that his vocal is absolutely wonderful! I used to sometimes come across people who said that Bowie "couldn't sing", and I'd play songs like this and think, “wha-aaaa...???”. The album recording is probably the most moving and also the most technically stunning piece of singing he ever did.

I've been thinking they must surely release the songs he wrote for that hypothetical Blackstar follow up. In his last months he was working at top speed, creating an album and collaborating on a musical, and hoping to finish yet another album. He also curated several records to be released after his death. I'm sure he cared about his legacy, and will have done this with as much care as he could manage, given the limited time he had. But he had so much he wanted to write and so little time. And a colleague of his said that in the last weeks he could occasionally see fear in his eyes.

1 February 2016

I've often been curious, and a bit confused, about Bowie's spiritual beliefs. Throughout his adult life he maintained an interest in Buddhism - a non-theistic religion, of course. For many people it's not even a religion as such, but more a kind of psychology or way of life - a set of practices and ethics. But Bowie so often contradicted himself about religion, sometimes saying he absolutely believed in God, and then later in life describing himself as "almost an atheist". I get the sense he was often not sure himself what he believed, if anything. I do think he was on a spiritual search for something, even though he had no truck with the dogma of organised religion. But I'd love to know if he finally found certainty or peace at the end (even though it's none of my business, I guess!), because he seemed afraid towards the end. I wonder if Iman, as a Muslim, believes she will "see" him again, or not. Or whether he expected to "see" her again, and if that brought him comfort. Or what his children believe. I would imagine they didn't bring up Lexi as a Muslim, but let her make up her own mind; that sounds like what he'd do. Does she believe she'll "see" her dad again one day? I don't know why, but I've been thinking about these things.

24 February 2016

Oh, V- ! Of all the people I know who've been affected by David's death, I feel you've been affected the most deeply. I hope it gets easier soon. {{{BIG HUGS}}}

I'm still very moved by his loss, and sad when I think about it - and sometimes I'm caught off guard by it and find it hard to believe that there is no longer David Bowie in this world. What I don't understand is how and why my interest in him and his music has been rekindled to such an extent. After all, the media hoo haa has died down, so the bandwagon has long passed. Before his death, I had never got rid of his albums, but I listened to them only rarely. I was the most obsessed fan I've ever known at one time, but that was over 30 years ago. Now I'm playing some of the albums again, watching interviews, reading articles... Most days I have one of his songs in my head at least some of the time (at this moment it's Golden Years). I find him gorgeously sexy (at least from 1977 onwards), even though I'm very heterosexual. And for the first time, really, I'm finding myself interested in his private life with Iman and Lexi, which is none of my business. And wondering how he was feeling about dying - someone who seemed to love living so much, and now had an extra person to live FOR. Wondering about all the musical and lyrical allusions on Blackstar and what some of them mean. My friends on Facebook must wonder why on earth I'm sharing so many photos of him. And I'm really not sure myself! Except that I know I'm the kind of person who goes through crazes and obsessions.

It sounds much more difficult for you, I know. I'm here if you need me, is what I want to say. xxxx

I'm not sure if I was aware, all those years ago at the age of 17, that he was the poster boy for odd kids. I knew that I was 'different’, that I didn't fit in, but I was too innocent and still coming out of my shell to really be aware of all the things he was kicking against and attracted to. I found that out much more recently by watching interviews. I guess the recurrent themes of loneliness, isolation and alienation in his lyrics must have registered to an extent - but I mean, his lifestyle (sexually promiscuous until his second marriage) was the complete opposite of mine! I didn't even have a kinda sorta girlfriend until I was 27! Perhaps that's partly why I was happy that Bowie had Iman and Lexi in his later life. The longing for fulfilled monogamy and family - that I could relate to. As Joni Mitchell once sang (something like): "fuck your strangers - don't it leave you on the empty side?"

My obsession, at 17, was the music. I was just thrilled by it. Also, to some degree, that sexual charisma. I may have been responding on some level to the context and subtext too, but if so then I think I was unconscious of it. He was just such a thrilling singer and performer, such an extraordinarily beautiful looking man, and the songs were magnificent enough for me to know them inside out and yet not get bored with them. And to a great extent, they still are.


It's the end of the year again now, the beginning of 2017, the anniversary fast approaching. And reading that last paragraph again, I'm sure that I always was responding to that incredible sexual charisma of his. I may not have been able to identify with his lifestyle, but there was a big part of me that wanted, however hopelessly, to be David Bowie. His beauty, his confidence… I had no idea, back in 1983, that he was actually quite a shy person - something that still feels unbelievable to me in a way, but which he was happy to admit to in later life, explaining that that was why he initially needed to create personas to express himself, especially on stage. Later on he felt more comfortable with himself and let 'David Bowie’ become one one big persona, separating it clearly from his private life, in which he remained David Jones. During the decade-long sabbatical from his career that was prompted by his 2004 heart attack, for the first time he spent almost his whole time being David Jones again - making charcoal drawings at home, watching movies, walking his daughter to school. He described aging as “an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been”. And in a statement a few years ago which really touched me when I heard it, he said, “Much to my surprise, I'm actually very like my dad”.

Perhaps my own growing up, together with my alienation from his earlier promiscuous lifestyle, is why I remain deeply attracted to him but to the older Bowie, not the androgynous Ziggy or the sinister Thin White Duke, or even the blond haired, Armani suited stadium megastar of 1983 (he later described the eighties wryly as “my Phil Collins years”). For me right now, Bowie was at his most beautiful fifteen years ago, when he released what I think is one of his best albums, Heathen. That album showed that as he aged he was already pondering the abyss of death, but on stage and in interviews he looked gorgeous, and somehow fully relaxed with himself. He had a new daughter, who he was clearly and touchingly besotted with. And both his thoughtfulness and his sense of humour were as wonderful as ever. That humour is something not everyone knows about, because it's only intermittently present on his albums, but it was witty, quick-firing, free associative, often bizarre, and very, very funny. Check his interviews from the time on YouTube, and contrast them with the awkward, defensive, cocaine-addled interviewee of 1975. It's like two completely different people.

But now it's 2017, and David has been dead for very nearly a year. I'm still sharing daily pictures of him on Facebook. I still have his songs in my head, almost every day, though I play his albums less often. Blackstar, with a few slight reservations, still feels as challenging and forward-looking as one could hope for, and (especially in the title song) deeply moving as well. I'm still, for some reason, not mourning him in the usual sense, though I do feel sad when I reflect that he's no longer with us. Instead I remain very much preoccupied with him, but mostly in a celebratory sense. After all, I never met David Jones, but David Bowie is in a real sense still alive - in his music, his films, his words, his interviews, and far more accessible now than in pre-internet days. I do wonder why I haven't been as grief stricken as so many other fans have been - what that says about me? But how I feel is how I feel. I love Bowie and I miss his living personal presence in the world; his death was definitely too soon. But he still sends thrills of excitement through me, more than anything else.

Always a bit ritualistic about dates, for some time I've wanted to round off these twelve months with some symmetry and closure. I could have just written this, played Blackstar on his anniversary, and left it at that. But in his own final year, David Bowie brought to fruition something so wonderful, so fractured and disorienting and glorious and fun, simultaneously forward-looking and also a summing up, that it was almost like looking back at his whole creative development (including his painting, acting and video work) through a kaleidoscope. It was like getting another album to complement Blackstar, yet in some ways it was more than an album - so very, very much more. And when I experienced it the second time I was moved to tears. That, for me, marked the end of the year - both 2016, to which it finally brought a sense of peace, and the year between his death and anniversary. That amazing, tortured, funny, nightmarish, compassionate, joyful and celebratory creation - Bowie's crowning achievement - is Lazarus.

On with the theatre review!

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