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David Bowie blackstarFor many years I dismissed David Bowie as a shallow opportunist. What was he doing that Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, conceptually and musically, hadn’t done with more wit and originality? I saw him at the Greyhound in Croydon in the summer of 1972, supported by Roxy Music in a pub room that can’t have held more than 200 people. He did the Ziggy Stardust thing, he and the band in full costume, and I didn’t care for it much.

Those particular songs still don’t do anything for me, but time sometimes dissolves prejudices and now I can see that what I took to be shallowness and opportunism were aspects of what we call the pop process: the way things evolve through mimesis and metamorphosis, adapting to their time. And the response to the sudden news of his death leaves no doubt of the profound impact he had on people whose lives were then in the process of being formed.

It wasn’t until the time of the Berlin trilogy that I started to take him seriously, but then he lost me again. I went to see him again at Wembley Arena in the early ’80s, and he looked to me like a man who’d run dry. But I liked the records he made with Nile Rodgers — if you’ve seen Frances Ha, you’ll know the wonderful sequence in which Greta Gerwig’s character skips through the streets of New York to the sound of “Modern Love” and the whole cinema seems to lift about a foot off the ground.

This morning I found myself going into Soho to buy his new album, queuing behind a bunch of people doing exactly the same thing. I could tell you that I was going to buy it today in any case, and it would be true: the idea of Bowie working with jazz musicians sounded intriguing, if not necessarily guaranteed to work.

I’m listening to blackstar now, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Bowie knew exactly what he was doing when he scheduled its release. It sounds like the supremely elegant farewell of an artist standing squarely on the platform of his past achievements in order to reach still further, one last time. It’s worthy of the famous line from Macbeth: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”

It isn’t jazz, of course, or anything like it. The skills of the musicians are put to a different purpose. In the mesh of textures created from the available palette, in the brilliant settings of his allusive lyrics, in the masterful sense of pacing (listen to the closing of “Lazarus”), in the aching poignancy of “Dollar Days” (“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see”), in the purposeful channeling of energy and the constant sense of newness from start to finish, this sounds like Bowie music at its most fully realised and powerfully affecting. What a way to say goodbye.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Dilworth #

    You sum up my feelings precisely, as usual. Thanks.

    January 11, 2016
  2. John Kieffer #

    Yes – me too. Thanks for a great post.

    January 11, 2016
  3. Jeffery Gifford #

    Thanks for that Richard.

    January 11, 2016
  4. Pieruk #

    Leos Carax did a similar sequence also on modern love. It’s in Mauvais Sang with Juliette Binoche:

    Modern love starts about 2 minutes in.
    Perhaps Frances Ha is paying homage to Carax.


    January 11, 2016
  5. Phil Shaw #

    Interesting reflections, Richard. I’m not a big Bowie fan – got put off by that Antony Newley vocal thing he did – but I do like his Berlin/Eno stuff and recognise his cultural significance.

    Funnily enough, given his reputation as a songwriter, possibly my favourite track is Wild Is the Wind, a cover of song done first (I think) by Johnny Mathis.

    January 11, 2016
  6. John McGloin #

    What a great blog! It mirrors my feelings towards Bowie, especially regarding the early stuff. My moment when the scales fell away was when I picked up a cassette of Young Americans. Genuine white soul and not the pastiche I thought it might be. Ah, a live version is being played on TV right now. And of course that immortal line “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry”.

    January 11, 2016
  7. Paul Tickell #

    Very interesting take, Richard. Like you I at first considered Bowie a sub-Warhol Factory derivate. But as soon as Ziggy was killed off, I realised the error of my ways and really got into him. Be My Wife is a personal favourite but there are so many other great tracks…

    January 11, 2016
  8. Ulrich #

    Dear Richard, it feels like that. I saw Bowie in 1978 in Dortmund, Germany, searching for something different to Bob Dylan in his Vegas-Style. I still like the his music of the seventies and yes, I thought of buying his record right now. That you for a great post.

    January 12, 2016
  9. You are of course welcome to express whichever views you wish on your blog, but, at the risk of being disrespectful to you – esteemed writer that you are, and I’m a fan – may I suggest that your ‘honest’ appraisal of David in this post might be in questionable taste? ‘For many years, I dismissed David Bowie as a shallow opportunist’? Charming! That’s some intro. And then to refer to the movie ‘Frances Ha’ as the point where ‘Modern Love’ made sense to you? Very strange.

    January 13, 2016
    • That’s your view of what I wrote, and you’re entitled to it. But being disrespectful was the very opposite of my intention. And where did I say that its inclusion in Frances Ha was the point at which “Modern Love” made sense to me? I loved it the first time I heard it on the radio. But thanks for writing. RW

      January 13, 2016
  10. Ciaran McLaughlin #

    Hi Richard, I think this may be a generational thing and that, with respect, you and some of the posters above were just too old by 1972?! For those of us hitting puberty in the early 70s the comparison between Bowie and The Beatles is more than just a lazy cliche. Great songs, beguiling visuals and a collective energy between star and devotees that could power a rocket ship to infinity. Through their freely acknowledged influences and seemingly endless curiosity to keep moving forward both provided opportunites for those of us interested enough to venture off the beaten track – not just artistically but sociologically. I love both equally and am just surprised that there are so few posts on here about the passing of this hugely influential artist. Love the blog – long-time reader but never felt the need / desire to contribute until now. Best Wishes, Ciaran.

    January 16, 2016
    • Thanks, Ciaran. I think you’re absolutely right about the generation question. What I was trying to say in the post was that although I couldn’t share the personal response to his life and death, because he hadn’t convulsed my adolescence or shown me possibilities of which I wasn’t already aware, I did come to admire him. And I certainly respect those, like you, who were affected much more profoundly.

      January 16, 2016

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