I’ve been trying for the past two weeks, as a fan of more than two decades’ standing, to distil my thoughts about the career and the passing of David Bowie—and to decide whether or not I like his new album, ‘Blackstar’. (The answer to the latter is Yes, quite a bit.) But the topic is so huge—it threatens to keep expanding and expanding—that it may well defeat me. My first attempt resulted in an essay so long that no one reading off a screen could be expected to imbibe it whole. This is my attempt at a ‘short’ version—Part 1 of 2!
Like many people, I think I was aware of David Bowie for a long time before I actually became a fan. I remember seeing his 3-disc ‘Sound + Vision’ boxed set in the record stores I was haunting back in 1990 and it looked IMPORTANT. It looked like something I might like—something I SHOULD like—but I didn’t have any way into his music, and I certainly didn’t have $60 to spend on a boxed set!
It wasn’t until two years later, almost absentmindedly, that I bought his first new solo record in several years, ‘Black Tie White Noise’, and from then on I became a loyal fan through 23 years, a remarkably fertile period for the consummate musician and tunesmith in the last half of a career in rock’n’roll—a young person’s art form if ever there was one.
So when he released a new album and died within a couple of days of each other, I—like many others—was in shock. We had no idea either that he had been ill or that he had new material coming out. It didn’t make any sense.
To be honest, I was not the biggest fan of his previous album, ‘The Next Day’ (for reasons I will explore in more detail in Part 2), and my first listen to ‘Blackstar’ elicited a ho-hum response. ‘Here we go again,’ I thought, ‘more of Bowie’s posing and pretence, his exaggerated theatrical darkness’—what my brother affectionately calls Bowie’s tendency to ‘spookify’ everything. Always adopting poses, speaking in voices, seldom his own. I’d grown a bit weary of it all in recent years, and wished he would expose himself in a more emotionally direct way, rather than hiding behind an endless series of masks.
But when he suddenly died, opening up the obvious interpretation of ‘Blackstar’ as his farewell album—not just to his fans and his career but to life itself—the sadness of it overwhelmed me, followed by a lingering sense of guilt. I had broken faith with one of the idols of my youth. I felt something similar to what children feel when they push back against an otherwise beloved parent. Our spiritual godfather, the king of all misfits, the guy who made it okay to be a freak, a geek or just plain queer (in every sense of the word) was gone.
There was no question of how I wanted to spend the day. An event like the death of David Bowie is something that you want to go out and share with people. I had to connect with two of my closest friends, both huge Bowie fans, both friendships the colour and shape of which was profoundly influenced by our shared love of Bowie. One (Simon) lives out in the country now, so the phone was our only link, but the other (Emile) is here doing a PhD and thus free to meet in the afternoon for a beer, coffee, cake and commiseration.
Without Bowie, Emile and I might never have become friends. We met and bonded over our mutual admiration for Bowie back in 2004, after Emile and his mum had seen him on Bowie’s last international concert tour (in support of 2003’s ‘Reality’). I had seen Bowie twice myself, once in 1997—with my other Bowie buddy, Simon—and once again in 2002.
Like me, Emile’s first reaction when he heard the news was, “This can’t be true. It’s gotta be a hoax.” The timing seemed too stagey, too surreal. Bowie had already staged his own death once, killing off the Ziggy Stardust character on-stage in a bit of rock’n’roll theatre. We couldn’t help feeling he’d done it again, but this time it was shockingly real.
So what we wanted on Monday the 11th was an approximation of that UK sort of local pub culture that doesn’t really exist here. You want to be able to just go down the street to a place where you can carry out spontaneous collective rituals, like mourning the death of a cultural hero, by seeing a dozen people you’ve known your whole life, getting good and drunk together, swapping stories, listening to the man’s music, crying a bit (or trying not to), smiling a lot, and just appreciating the fact that we shared a bit of time on the planet with a talent as huge as David Bowie’s.
Absent that culture, it was just me, Emile, a pitcher of beer, and my New Music Express commemorative Bowie magazine from 2013. And it was still a pretty great experience.
When I got home, I returned a missed call from Simon, and talking to him brought back a flood of memories from my university days. Simon was a musician, an aspiring actor, and a die-hard Bowie fan, and I feel like we spent those four years mutually deepening our appreciation of Bowie. We both liked the album ‘Outside’ (1995), and I had recently bought ‘ChangesBowie’, the best of the standard hits collections—not a dud on it.
Then, in February of ’96, I accompanied Simon to his Juilliard audition in New York. It was both of our first visits to the city, and as we wandered around snow-covered streets so familiar from—often rather scary, intimidating—movies and TV shows, it was the mental soundtrack of Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, ‘Golden Years’, ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ running through my head that made New York feel more welcoming, less scary, more like a place I could actually imagine living than the forbidding wintery cityscape could do by itself.
Listen again to ‘Young Americans’, unstoppably groovy and dripping with Bowie’s trademark saxophone riffs. Can anything else capture so beautifully, so perfectly the jazzy excitement of a foreigner coming to America to suck up, like a hungry sponge, its unbelievably rich music culture? I fell in love with the city through Bowie’s lens, going to gallery shows and off-broadway plays, communing with Warhol, Burroughs, Ginsberg—all heroes of Bowie’s—with the man’s music in the background as my virtual and spiritual guide to the city’s aesthetic currents.
Then, in 1997, Simon and I had the chance to see Bowie live at the Guvernment, a small, relatively intimate venue (with a standing-room only audience of about 500) where you could get to within several feet of the stage if you were bold enough to push your way up there. The line-up outside was a motley assortment of several generations of fans, from old-time rockers to youngsters like ourselves. We enjoyed chatting with them about how many times and when they’d seen Bowie before (the Serious Moonlight tour? 1990’s Sound + Vision? or even earlier), vicariously casting ourselves back to those legendary shows.
It was an upbeat, energetic show that heavily favoured new material from his drum’n’bass record ‘Earthling,’ though there was a smattering of the older hits to mollify the various segments of his fan base. The highlight of the show for me was his amazing cover of Laurie Anderson’s moody, futuristic—and very long—‘O Superman,’ with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey on backing vocals. The song, sung in a kind of mock-robotic monotone, was perfect for Bowie’s stagey, theatrical voice. Eerily moving, and impossibly hip, Bowie showed off his sophisticated and eclectic taste by covering artists and peers that he loved, and bringing them to his own somewhat wider popular audience.
Five years later, I had a chance to see him again as part of Moby’s AREA 2 travelling music festival. Bowie had just released arguably the best album of his late period, 2002’s ‘Heathen’, was in fine form, and eager to take his new songs out on tour.
Two highlights of that show were a long, snaking, almost unrecognizable introduction to a song that finally slipped into the familiar and infectious groove of ‘Let’s Dance’. (You can hear a version of it on the ‘Bowie at the Beeb’ collection, a wondrous and sneaky reworking of one of his most popular hits.) Many of us thought it had gone permanently out of his repertoire. Bowie generally preferred to keep moving forward, rather than reliving past successes, and he was particularly ambivalent about that phase of his career, supposedly retiring many of his older hits on the 1990 ‘Sound + Vision’ tour. But he was also a consummate showman, and he knew how to play to the very mixed crowds he attracted after such a lengthy career.
The other highlight was a light-hearted moment when, coming onto the open-air waterfront venue's stage at sunset, with the light coming in at a blinding 180 degree angle, Bowie paused to ask if anyone in the front few rows could lend him a pair of sunglasses. I’m sure those sunglasses, returned to the fan after the sun went down, are proudly displayed on a shelf somewhere in Toronto, still radiating an aura of magic.
The Stars Are Out Tonight
Anyone would be a little intimidated to meet their heroes. And this is just as true for other celebrities themselves—people like Ricky Gervais, who went from being Bowie’s fan to being his friend. Among the many tributes to and remembrances of Bowie, Gervais’s are some of the most endearing, because they remind us that the mystique built up around Bowie did not necessarily reflect his real personality. He was, by all accounts, charming, personable, gregarious and warm, and this comes through in his late-career interviews where he seems relaxed, in good humour, and only too happy to poke fun at himself.
But the intimidating mystique remained. This was due in part to his obviously huge talent, the sheer variety and (often) the avant-garde or oddball character of his output, and perhaps the lingering questions about his ambiguous sexuality, all of which placed him in a category by himself—a star even to other stars. He was the insider’s outsider, or the outsider’s insider—take your pick.
This is also what enabled Bowie to be both über-famous and to remain a kind of permanent underground artist. (Many more people knew who he was, a semi-mythical being from the 1970’s, than actually followed his career or listened to his music with any consistency.) Which is what made being his fan a deliciously solitary experience, as well as a warmly collective one. It was like being part of a secret society that was nonetheless open to anyone who dared to walk through the door into Bowie-land and make a spiritual home there.
Given his knack for theatrical self-presentation, as well as his interest in dance and mime, it was all but inevitable that Bowie would have a fertile acting career. He was an excellent mimic, and played a surprising number of historical and real-life personages on stage and screen: Pontius Pilate, John Merrick, Andy Warhol, Nikola Tesla.
So it should take nothing away from him to speculate that no director ever cast him in a film simply for his (considerable) talent as an actor. You cast David Bowie for his weird otherworldly glamour (was not his first film role that of an alien come down from the heavens?), his androgynous sexual magnetism (50% physiognomic, 50% iconographic), or just for his fame. The film industry needs stars (of which there are relatively few), not just talented actors (of which there are a great many), and Bowie was destined to be a very bright star indeed.
All I want to note here about his tremendously varied film work, however, is that, as in the world of glam rock, which made feminized erotic icons of its male performers, Bowie’s screen presence had the kind of austere, untouchable erotic glamour that is usually reserved for women: Garbo, Deitrich, Bacall. Nobody ‘identifies’ with these figures; they are too remote, too far above us mere mortals. You simply marvel at them, and if you lust after them, you do it from a respectful distance. You can look, but not touch.
For all of these reasons, Bowie’s greatest screen role was probably that of Major Jack Celliers in director Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’, based on the memoirs of Sir Laurens van der Post about his experience as a prisoner of war in a Japanese-run camp at the end of World War II. But it is also about a Japanese officer’s homosexual infatuation with Celliers—that is, his infatuation with David Bowie. That officer, Captain Yanoi, is played with heartbreaking tenderness by Ryuichi Sakamoto, a distinguished Japanese musician (still active in 2016, after his own battle with cancer), who also composed the film’s score. A homoerotic love story, then, Sakamoto’s theme to the film is as beautiful a piece of music as we could wish for to celebrate Bowie’s life. Give it a listen:
Strangers When We Meet
But being a Bowie fan has not always been easy. Bowie himself has created certain challenges and hurdles to being a fan. He regularly confounded conventional notions of sincerity and authenticity, near-sacred values in the world of rock’n’roll. And at two crucial points in his career, he turned his back on a wide swath of his audience, and risked alienating them—alienating us—permanently.
As a long-time Bowie fan, I have not been immune to conflicted feelings about my hero from time to time, but the events of the past two weeks have put it all into a new perspective.
Fans are often guilty of making a couple of typical mistakes with regard to their heroes. First, they think they own them, and second, they think they understand their heroes better than anyone else. They are also very keen to snobbishly police the boundaries of who does and doesn’t qualify as a true ‘fan’. I am not innocent of any of these sins, and have been affectionately raked over the coals for calling myself a Bowie fan when – shameful admission – I've never listened to some of his most important albums all the way through. (What can I say? I’ll get around to it…)
I’m sure, on the side of the ‘hero’, too, there is a good deal of ambivalence about this mob of people who are so invested in you, and want so many different things from you. They can be fiercely loyal, but their expectations can also be limiting, keeping you in a box, and being harshly critical when you stray outside of it. (Indeed, this is one of the themes of my novella, ‘Adultescence.’) Certainly, Bowie pushed back against this at times. And it did create challenges for his fans.
Bowie’s ambivalence about his audiences—for there was no singular Bowie audience—is expressed quite directly when, in a TV interview with Jonathan Ross, he (dismissively) described his greatest period of mainstream success as his “Phil Collins years” (see 12:32), during which he felt equally disconnected from what the audience had come to see and what he was doing there.
Of the huge stadium shows he played in that era, he says: “I remember looking out over these waves of people and thinking, ‘I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections’ ” [NME, 2013, p. 94]. Is that the worst kind of snobbery? (Maybe.) Or maybe it’s just Bowie expressing a deep-seated feeling that any number of artists could have made pop music of the ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Modern Love,’ ‘Blue Jean’ variety, and an equally deep desire to get back to making the kind of music only he could make.
So, he turned his back on a large swath of that audience, making often difficult, sometimes unlistenable music. His noise-rock band Tin Machine is the most obvious example. 1995’s avant-garde concept album ‘Outside’—billed as ‘a non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle,’ whatever that is—won him some new fans, but puzzled and alienated others. As David Fricke's Rolling Stone review noted: “You have to wade through 19 tracks of conceptual mischief to get to the simple melodic development and swelling chorus of ‘Strangers When We Meet’ ” (one of my personal favourites). Twenty tracks, and only one memorable pop song. That’s difficult music, and a challenge many fans weren’t up to.
Then there are the obscure, often nonsensical lyrics. Despite penning numerous lucid rock anthems—‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Changes’, ‘Heroes’—at large amount of Bowie’s lyrical output has been just this side of completely inscrutable. The New Yorker review of ‘Blackstar’ notes that Bowie borrowed the cut-up method of composition from William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. He would simply gather lines that he liked and more or less assemble them at random. What songs like ‘Diamond Dogs’ or ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon’ might MEAN is anyone’s guess. So long as they are married to a great hook or melody, it hardly matters. On less musically appealingly tracks, and in the absence of a key as to what he is doing (or why we should care), many listeners can be forgiven for pressing the ‘SKIP’ button.
But perhaps one of the greatest attractions to, and disappointments with Bowie, was his open-armed embrace—and, for a time, his literal embodiment—of sexual difference. Like a lot of young queer people, I was both attracted to and (initially) scared off of Bowie for this reason. Seductive and dangerous, Bowie was both.
So when he first declared (in an early Melody Maker interview), “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones,” and then backed away from those claims in later years, it felt like a betrayal. At best, he would admit to being bisexual. At worst, it was all flippantly dismissed as the product of a lot of drug taking. How could the most glamorous—and androgynous—icon of Glam Rock be a turncoat? Where were his orphaned acolytes to turn for the sense of belonging, validation and inspiration that Bowie had so tantalizingly held out to them?
(For a cinematic treatment of this sense of betrayal, see Todd Haynes’ 1998 film ‘Velvet Goldmine’, a thinly veiled biopic not so much of Bowie but of the Ziggy Stardust persona and what it meant to queer people.)
Whatever the real story is behind Bowie’s sexual change of heart, he never stopped being asked about it, though he did learn to handle the questions with greater aplomb and humour as he got older. But he must have resented the constant distraction, and the true artist in him must have bristled at so frequently being asked about his exotic appearance and his sexuality, rather than his incredible—and very technically accomplished—music.
As Haynes’ film suggests, despite the sense of betrayal some fans may have felt, what we experience while under the spell of an artist’s carefully constructed stage persona—if it helps us to imagine, invent, or just get comfortable with our selves—can never be taken away from us. The music, the images, and the experiences they give rise to remain part of a rich emotional repository for our own identity formation, and transformation, even after the artist who created them loses interest and moves on to other projects.