It is rare that the death of someone that you did not know, someone you had never spoken to or met, genuinely causes any grief. Certainly, all deaths are sad, but to actually feel like a part of the world, a part of you, has gone? To feel that you have lost something on a level that cannot really be explained? That is how I feel today. David Bowie – pioneer, visionary, genius – has died, 2 days after his 69th birthday.
Very, very few artists, in any field, have influenced society as much as Bowie. There will be hundreds of tributes to the man, thousands of words written about the impact that he had not only on music, but on fashion, art, expression, even matters as great as LGBT rights and freedom. All I can do is try to express what David Bowie meant to me.
I remember the day I discovered Bowie. Of course, I had heard snippets as a very young child, but I had never really paid much attention. I existed, from an extremely young age, on a diet of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and never really gave any time to anything else. I have mentioned this previously on my blog about The Bends, and the impact that Radiohead had on me, but prior to this, the Beatles/Beach Boys obsession was broken by another. Forever Changes by Love, and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, were seminal moments for me, but they were not the albums that really alerted me to music outside of my narrow obsession. I remember my Dad telling me that there was a wealth of music I had yet to discover and, when I was around the age of 11, he gave me a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
I distinctly recall putting it on my CD player, sat next to my Dad in my bedroom, and hearing the rhythmic drum beat fade in. From nothing, slowly, almost insidiously, the beat crept up on me. A crash of piano, and Bowie’s voice almost whispering into the song, struggling to be heard above the noise around. I sat, enraptured, instantly exposed to something that I had never before heard. Five Years remains one of my favourite opening songs to any album, Bowie’s apocalyptic story tinged with a modicum of hope. It is an arresting song even now, and to the 11 year old me, it was so greatly different to that which I had known. It sounds rather disingenuous when people deem hundreds of artists “life-changing”, but the experience of discovering David Bowie was a genuine defining moment for me. Music has been the cornerstone of my entire life, and Ziggy Stardust represents the moment that I realised that I could not be restricted to the confines of my initial loves, that there was a world of music in just the 60s and 70s, let alone the time since. It was a catalyst for me to expand my horizons, and in the 5 years (fittingly) after hearing Ziggy Stardust, my album collection expanded from around 10-15 (all Beatles and Beach Boys) to nearer 300. I began to consume new music voraciously, and immediately after Bowie came Dylan, Love, Television, Joni Mitchell, Nirvana, Talking Heads, and many more.
Not only did he open my mind to an infinite array of music, Bowie was a key part of discovering true difference and individuality. I had experienced this by documenting Brian Wilson’s remarkable transition from writing surfing pop songs to creating some of the great masterpieces of the 21st Century, but Bowie showed even more. I am not just referring to his chameleonic appearance, and flamboyant style (his appearance as Ziggy Stardust was alarming to me, even post-2000). One of Bowie’s greatest attributes was his refusal, possibly even inability, to rest on his laurels. A few years after creating the most perfect, almost pop, albums Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, Bowie produced a phenomenal string of experimental, pioneering records. Station to Station, Low, Heroes and Lodger pushed musical boundaries, as Bowie worked largely with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti to create soundscapes that had never been heard (and have never really been heard since).
Aside from the astonishing musical originality (Station to Station was released in January 1976), on a personal level the transition made me realise that music, and artists, were fluid, that they should not stagnate, that innovation was crucial. This has been a vital realisation that instigated my love of Radiohead, and adoration for their move to OK Computer/Kid A instead of sticking in a more comfortable territory, and inspired me to seek out such records as Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Remain in Light, The Idiot (produced and partly written by Bowie himself), and Trout Mask Replica. It made it clear that experimentation was not scary, and was not done “for the sake of it” – it could be beautiful.
It is impossible to come close to doing Bowie’s work justice, or articulate the impact that he had on my life. All I can say is that it is a loss of a magnitude rarely felt by the world, and I will miss him greatly. He continued to create new and exciting music right until the end, and I will be listening to his latest release, Blackstar, on the way home tonight. R.I.P Bowie, knowledge comes with death’s release.