I was going to write a post about Parks and Recreation today. But I can’t. Because someone I truly admire died yesterday.
I know it’s hugely self-indulgent to write about how one who affected so many influenced me personally, although we had never met. But this is my blog, and I can do what I like. If I can’t be self-indulgent here, where can I?
When the news of David Bowie’s passing popped up on my news feed I was convinced it was a hoax. I went back to playing a video game, annoyed that someone would actually find this kind of trickery funny. It stuck in the back of my mind, though, and I went back to the internet with some trepidation. As more and more confirmation rolled in over the next forty-five minutes I tried desperately to remain in denial. He’d just released an album, for goodness sakes! Web sites can be hacked, Facebook pages exploited. I finally messaged my partner to see if he’d heard the news. He was convinced that I’d made a typo. And, because nothing is really real to me until I tell him about it, I finally buried my face in the lounge room rug and wept.
Like many, I became properly appreciative of David Bowie in my teens. I’m a sucker for incredible guitar playing – I was and always will be a devotee of music played with instruments, call me a snob if you will. Bowie had been one of those musicians of my parent’s generation, and it wasn’t until I raided their CD collection so I could digitally transfer the cream of the crop onto my MP3 player that I properly started to appreciate Bowie. It began with Changes, his best-of, but I soon started listening to his entire discography.
During VCE English, our assigned reading was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our School Assessed Coursework for the unit was to sit an essay test about the book where we could pick the topic, as long as it related closely to the text. I decided to research how the novel had affected modern culture, and lo and behold, I discovered that Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs was a concept piece based on Orwell’s work. It’s pretty obvious when you look at the song titles and lyrics – Diamond Dogs is the same story distilled to its essence, with additional Bowie flair. He had originally planned to write a musical based on the book, but Orwell’s estate denied him the rights. So instead we have an album that begins with an introductory track, Future Legend, that describes a post-apocalyptic world. Then follows the titular track Diamond Dogs, which introduces the main character Halloween Jack (long before Nightmare Before Christmas) who lives on top of Manhattan Chase, placing the work in New York City. It also introduces the Diamond Dogs, gangs of mutated punks who hunt in packs, “Todd Browning’s Freaks you was,” referring to the film Freaks.
Sweet Thing and Candidate are the story of love in a city ruled by the Diamond Dogs, beautiful and perilous. Rebel Rebel is a rocking interlude, a classic rock song that Bowie wrote because he knew the style would piss off Mick Jagger (indeed, the opening notes could be easily mistaken for a Stones number). We then get into Rock and Roll With Me, We Are the Dead, 1984, and Big Brother, when we realised just how doomed Jack and his lover really are. Finally, the Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family ends the album with a jaunty tune that suddenly becomes eerie and creepy as the first syllable of “brother” is repeated over and over. Underneath all of Bowie’s jaunty radio-friendly hits was work that was intrigued with the idea of isolation, doom and destruction.
From there I went back and listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, arguably one of Bowie’s most well-known works, and listened to the story of a rock star from space who came to bring a message to the people of earth, who have only five years left to live before the earth died. He was a bi-sexual, drug-taking, promiscuous messenger who delivered hope, peace and love who was destroyed by his own creativity.
From there I delved into Aladdin Sane, back to Hunky Dory and forward to Let’s Dance. I marvelled at the way Bowie adapted his look and sound – rather than remain stagnant in the glam era he kept trying new sounds, new techniques, and new costumes. He was constantly reaching new generations of fans, particularly teens who were unsure of who they were. He was a safe shelter for misfits everywhere, and he collaborated with other artists that misfits related to – The Rolling Stones, Queen, Tina Turner, Trent Reznor, Placebo and Lou Reed. Here was a man who cross-dressed on and off stage, who flouted conventional ideas around sexuality and gender, who’s music told you that it was okay to be weird. As an adult who works in a creative space, originality and weirdness is generally praised, but being creative and weird as a teenager gets you ostracised. Bowie taught me not to just accept my weirdness, but to embrace it, and to wear it as a badge of honour. He taught me that story-telling could be anything you want it to be, and how to write symbolism. Even now, I listen to his lyrics and find new meaning. I suspect I always will. His music never fails to provide me with inspiration.
He released his last album, Blackstar, just a few days ago. Just as the world was starting to listen and attempt to decipher meaning, he died. And the album took on a whole new meaning just two days after its release.
According to Bowie’s producer, Lazarus was intended as an epitaph, and Blackstar as a swan song – Bowie’s last gift to his fans. The imagery of a black star, of a brightly burning light that has finally gone out. The video’s released for the title track and Lazarus now, in context, are like watching him plan his own funeral. The video for Blackstar shows an alien woman discovering the dead body of an astronaut, and taking his jewel-encrusted skull back to a nearby, ancient-looking town to perform a funeral rite. To me, this is the final end of Ziggy, or even Major Tom. Hell, Bowie was both and more, wasn’t he?
I could go into talking more about his work and symbolism, about Major Tom and the Thin White Duke, and all of his other characters. But the discovery of Bowie’s work is a journey that one needs to undertake on their own, and it’s one that will never really end. David Bowie was an incredible musician, yes. But for me he will always be the ultimate story-teller, a bard who tells tales straight from the imagination.
Finally, if any of you reading this are Bowie fans who haven’t seen Venture Brothers, do it. There are more references to his work than you can shake a stick at, and I giggle every time I hear, “Changes One! I love that album!” “Can you be a bigger poser? Changes was a best-of!” He also jumps into battle yelling, “Make way for the homo superior!” You’ll love it.