Rock’s great chameleon—David Bowie—is dead. When the news was gently broken to me Monday morning, I wept. And I’m the furthest thing from a celebrity whore—I couldn’t care less about the lives of the rich and famous. But this is different. As a writer, I view other writers—and artists generally—as part of my ‘tribe.’ And like all artists, we look to our tribe for inspiration and even, occasionally, support for our own creativity. David Bowie is the reason I created my personal brand, chameleonfire, 25 years ago when I started publishing poetry. Bowie was the original ‘chameleon on fire.’ His mercurial shifts of character and sound were a blazing beacon in a pop music desert all too often crowded by imitators and those who only knew an original idea when they stole it. Bowie was a creative dynamo, spinning out so many original twists and turns, it was hard to keep up. As is now being acknowledged in tributes all over the world, he was a true innovator who inspired generations of musicians. As the Guardian put it: “the most important and influential artist since the Beatles.” For me January 11 will always be Black Monday.
Still, as essential to late 20th and early 21st century culture as Bowie was, that doesn’t explain why someone like me—as far removed from his world as could possibly be imagined—would sit down and weep over a man I never personally knew. The answer, as my partner Anne Champagne so concisely put it: artists like Bowie “seep into our cells.” For my generation—the very tail end of the Baby Boomers—music was hugely important to us at a critical time in our young lives. In the 21st century wall-to-wall entertainment world, it’s easy to forget that as little as 40 years ago, when Bowie’s career was just picking up steam, our options were far more limited. Yes, we had movies, of course, but you had to make an effort to get in the family car to go see one. And if Mom or Dad decided it wasn’t ‘family fare,’ then you didn’t go. Yes, we had AM and FM radio stations, thank God. You can imagine what a lifeline that was to a lonely, alienated teenager in a Canadian backwoods town. Assuming the radio station had the juice to make it out of the major cities, that is. And yes, we had comic books (before they were known as ‘graphic novels’). But just about everywhere you were you could find a record shop or at least an aisle devoted to LP records in your local variety store. Even a broke teenager could afford the four or five bucks it cost to buy an LP (although I do remember shoplifting records from time to time in my more rebellious period).
And speaking of alienation, Bowie was a master of the form. The ‘alien’ theme ran through his entire career, starting with his first hit single Space Oddity. Although ostensibly about an astronaut in the new space age, its haunting quality resonates in the lines: “Planet Earth is blue / and there’s nothing I can do.” The sense of helplessness while floating gravity-free in space was something I could instantly relate to as a bookish outcast in a redneck sawmill town, as if the distance between my peers and I could never be crossed. To this day I look at the craziness in the world and wonder how I can possibly be from this planet. Bowie picks up the theme again with The Man Who Sold the World, another hauntingly beautiful song hinting at post-Flower Power era apocalyptic forebodings: “We must have died alone / a long, long time ago…” The eponymous album remains an underrated gem in Bowie’s catalogue, its garage band rock propelling some of his most fascinating lyrics, covering everything from Nietzsche’s ‘supermen,’ lusty romps, Vietnam, and religion to the insular world of the insane. Clearly, this was no mainstream pop artist writing lyrical pabulum. There was early evidence here and on Hunky Dory of passion and intellect on a broad, deep scale.
And then came Ziggy, the ultimate exploration of the alienated hero, who landed here from another part of the galaxy with his Spiders from Mars. The day I first heard Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is vividly etched in memory. My parents had moved us back to the Kootenays after seven long, horrible years in Mackenzie, BC, where I was bullied mercilessly through grade school. Suddenly I was just one of many with long hair and beads, not the oddball. And people wanted to talk about ideas instead of trucks! For the first time, I fit in. It was early winter, the snow already crusted and glittering, the angular shadows of trees reaching softly down the mountain. I’d saved up a gift of magic mushrooms from my 16th birthday in September. Visiting some hippie friends in Argenta who lived in a converted school bus, I decided it was time to trip out. As the mushrooms were taking hold, my friends said: “Listen to this record and tell us what you think.” From the first bar of Five Years, I knew this was not your by-the-numbers rock ’n roll record. The album’s brilliant mix of acoustic and electric guitars, slightly off-kilter backup vocals, sing-along choruses and slashing guitar solos utterly captivated me, then and for all time. When I die, I want this album played at my wake.
With Ziggy, the latent alien of earlier songs sprang vividly to life. And right from the opening cut, Five Years, the apocalyptic vision is defined with poignant, lyrical precision. “News had just come over / we had five years left to cry in / News guy wept and told us / Earth was really dying…” Now, 44 years later, these lyrics are as potent as ever in the age of global climate change. As with all greats, often there’s a visionary quality to Bowie’s work. The alien theme is consistent throughout Ziggy, with songs like Starman, Lady Stardust, and the title track. Eerily, Bowie was forecasting the character he would later play in The Man Who Fell to Earth—the gifted alien whose talents end up making him even more isolated within the cocoon of wealth and fame. Songs like Ziggy Stardust, Star, Hang on to Yourself and Rock ’n Roll Suicide are probably the most apt soundtrack to the pitfalls of rock stardom ever recorded. Well before he found himself in a lonely LA mansion blowing his brains out with coke and paranoia, Bowie seemed to have intuitive insight of the risks of fame. Of course, that didn’t stop him from playing out the role, but thankfully he pulled himself together before it was too late. Far too many others weren’t able to—Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Curtis, Cobain—the list is tragically long. In the era of Facebook and home recording software it’s all too easy to complain that it’s nearly impossible to get noticed above the ever-growing crowd. But if these tragic stories of rock ’n roll suicides and premature deaths tell us anything, it’s that the whole concept of global stardom is inherently unsustainable, like the rest of the consumer lifestyle. Too often, the price is far too high.
Bowie learned this lesson well, and had the sense to retreat to Berlin for some personal and creative rejuvenation. By then the success of chart-topping singles like Golden Years, Young Americans and Fame allowed him the financial freedom to simply explore his creativity without hindrance or expectation. The result of course is the legendary ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of albums—Low, Heroes and Lodger. Working with new collaborators like Eno and the crack band he’d picked up with the masterful Station to Station, these albums are evidence that exploring ideas—not pleasing audiences or record executives—was the new Priority One. Of the three, only Low really stands the test of time as a total work, but that’s not the point. To remain vital, artists must be allowed the freedom to range widely. Being the ever-changing chameleon he was (“turn and face the strange”), this would change again with more commercial albums like Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down. But this time, Bowie was in control of the fame monster, not the other way around. It’s arguable that from a creative standpoint, Bowie like many other artists of his generation never quite recaptured the brilliant spark of his early period. Whole albums of sheer genius were replaced by flashes of occasional yet penetrating brilliance. But by then Bowie’s legacy was secure.
What strikes me about Bowie’s personal character, as far as anyone in the public can discern through the hype, is his generosity. Well before he was an international superstar, he was writing hit singles and producing albums for his musical friends. Were it not for the song All the Young Dudes, it’s doubtful whether early ’70s glam-rock band Mott the Hoople would have had a career (and by extension its lead songwriter Ian Hunter, whose solo career easily outshone the band). During his Berlin period he teamed up with Iggy Pop, whose post-Stooges career prospects were bleak were it not for Bowie producing two of his highest-rated albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life. Bowie also penned three of Pop’s most enduring songs—Sister Midnight, China Girl and The Passenger—that in turn inspired many of the New Wave bands of the ’80s. As Pop said upon learning of Bowie’s death: “David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is.” Talented people can often be neurotic and extremely difficult, so Bowie’s generosity toward artists he believed in speaks volumes of his character.
For me personally it’s another nail in the coffin of a golden era. The past few years have seriously thinned out the ranks of pioneering musicians, with many—if not most of them—dying from cancer. Jack Bruce, Johnny Winter, BB King, Chris Squire, Alvin Lee, Dick Wagner, Lemmy Kilmister—the list is frighteningly long. Just scroll through the list at Ultimate Classic Rock and see how many died from cancer, many of them Bowie’s age. Only BB managed to make it into his 80s. This is the great Untold Story of western civilization—cancer has reached epidemic proportions. It’s the story you won’t hear from the mainstream media, the same corporations who bring you GMOs, toxic pesticides and herbicides, cell phones and other cancer-causing items. As Medscape Medical News reported in February 2007, “Cancer will affect 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women in the United States, and the number of new cases of cancer is set to nearly double by the year 2050. Both predictions are based on statistics collected by the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).” With numbers like that, it’s not a leap to call cancer the 21st century equivalent of the Black Plague. But seldom is a word spoken about WHY this is so, since almost the entire commercial system profits from carcinogenic products. Not least of these are the medical system and the pharmaceutical industry. Instead we’re fed the lie: people are living longer!
All day long and as I write this, I feel numb. As I said to Anne when I heard the news: It’s like a part of me has died. “That’s because they seep into our cells,” she wisely observed. Bowie and all the other great artists we’ve recently lost live on, as part of our cultural DNA. That I can walk down the street and hear in my mind the sweetly melancholy strains of Five Years as clearly as I did that first magical moment is testament to the enduring power of great art. (And I don’t need an iPod to do it; the song is a permanent part of my brain.) It’s a wonderful, gentle rebuttal to the media critics of the early ’70s who claimed Bowie’s music was “gimmicky” or a flash in the pan.
I haven’t felt this bereft since John Lennon’s death. There again I was dumbfounded by what seemed an outsize reaction to the death of a distant celebrity. And it was probably then that I learned that an artist whose work touches you is anything but distant. They leave an imprint on your neurons, your soul. One that stays with you forever.
Long may you run, David.
Rockers We Lost in 2015
David Bowie: The Man Who Thrilled the World
Kanye West, Iggy Pop, Rolling Stones Remember David Bowie
“Crashing Out with Sylvian : David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious” by Tanja Stark