Issue 36:2016 01 14: David Bowie

14 January 2016

David Bowie

The soundtrack of our youth

by Adam McCormack

Whatever the musical trend of the 1970’s and 1980’s, whether glam rock, heavy metal, punk, soul, disco, David Bowie was present alongside it.  While there were elements of all of these genres to be found in his music, he did not get led by the trend, rather he utilized it to express his own talent.  So it is particularly poignant and sad for us baby boomers to hear of his death at the age of 69.

How many of us stood in front of the mirror as pimply teenagers, trying to sculpt our hair into a “Bowie Cut” , in an effort to look like Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane?  We all failed miserably, and suffered a similar fate when trying to dress like the “Thin White Duke’ (chubby pallid wannabee was the best most of us could do).  But beyond capturing our young imaginations with his androgynous style and originality, Bowie made us realize that music was a true art form that went beyond just 3 minutes of verse-chorus-guitar solo.  The mid-seventies album trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger were perhaps (for me) the peak of his creative endeavour, if not commercial success (these albums went gold as opposed to the early-eighties Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance which were platinum sellers) and they defy musical categorization, at a time when the rest of the popular music business was slipping into compartments of punk, disco or heavy metal.

Apart perhaps from “the laughing gnome”, for us sixties children Bowie was the epitome of cool.  Even when, at least musically, some of us just didn’t get it (I really struggled with the raw improvisational style of Tin Machine), we had to appreciate the style in which it was presented.  He was a sought after musical collaborator who can claim duets with John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, and Bing Crosby, as well as having a significant influence on performers such as David Sylvian (Japan) and Gary Numan.

Bowie was of course much more than an innovative songwriter and musical performer, he was also an actor of great talent.  Much will be said of his appearances in the films Just a Gigolo, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I will always remember crowding around a black and white portable TV with fellow students to watch his performance in Brecht’s Baal for the BBC in 1982, and I wish I had been able to see his John Merrick in a 1980 production of Elephant man, where he used mime to convey the disabilities.  He did such a wide variety of projects that he has been put down to having a limited attention span, but I would rather believe that genius such as his constantly seeks new direction.

Those of us who found our career paths lay in the City found still further respect for him as he pioneered the “securitization” of the revenues from his back catalogue of work, a shrewd way of realizing a significant sum ($55 million) as the way in which music was accessed started to change. Perhaps much of my generation’s regard for David Bowie comes from the age at which we were first exposed to his talents, but I would suggest that we are unlikey to come across anyone of such originality again.  True devotees will be pleased that Bowie was able to produce 2 new albums so close to his death, although I suspect that many of us will be more than content with the great variety of the work we remember so well from our youth.

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