Tuesday 12 January 2016

David Bowie - The Legacy

Please indulge me, and allow me a short preamble. When I started writing this blog, my intention was to write about music. The idea was that it would promote local music and local bands. The trouble was that I found it extremely hard to write anything interesting. Just about every performance can be summed up as "They were brilliant", "They were alright" or "They were rubbish" and there is only so many ways you can say that and make it readable. But once in a while, there is something that has to be said....

I have spent the best part of the last two days mulling over why I feel so distraught over the death of a man I've never met. What was it about Bowie that was so special? There are plenty of other musicians with long careers who have made a shedload of brilliant recordings. There are plenty who have been stylish. There are plenty who have caught the zeitgiest of an age. What made me feel so different about Bowie? I read the comment by Rosie Canning on my Bowie RIP blog, a lovely friend. As soon as I read her words, it all fell into place.
"When I was a gawky, self-conscious teenager, the odd one out, the troublemaker, the kid from the children's home. His lyrics were my friend, he somehow understood the awfulness of my life but gave me hope. I had somewhere to vent my frustrations, somewhere to rebel, by listening to him. He helped form my identity too, amongst thousands. But when I was 13 and in the music room, he was all mine, my very special friend."
When you heard the music of Bowie, you realised that you weren't the only person who felt a bit different. You weren't the only person who sometimes felt like a freak. You weren't the only person in the world feeling insecure and odd. Bowie wrote music that you could lock yourself in your room and make friends with. The theme running through all of his 1970's work was outsiders and people who didn't fit in. But not only that, the outsiders in the pictures Bowie painted were hip and cool. Rebel Rebel is an anthem to being different and cool at the same time. Then there are songs like Kooks, where Bowie lets us into his own insecurity. A song to has son. Not telling him how to live his life, but pleading with him to stay part of "our lovers story". Bowie the megastar pleading with his own small child to keep a place for him in his heart. At the time I hated the song. It was a bit too raw and personal for an eleven year old. Like much of Bowies work, it took me years to really get it.

In the late 1970's my favourite Bowie album was "Low".  Of all the Bowie albums, it is by far the most experimental. I owned it on an 8 track,so I could put it on and listen to it ad infinitum, which I often did, three for four times on the bounce. Sometimes I'd fall asleep and it would still be playing in the morning. My favourite track was "Be my wife", followed by "Speed of Life".  At the time I was probably as insecure as it was possible to be. I totally got the vibe of  "Be my wife". It summed up all of the sexual insecurity I felt at the time. The first verse and chorus summed up how I felt

Sometimes you get so lonely
Sometimes you get nowhere
I've lived all over the world
I've left every place

Please be mine
Share my life
Stay with me
Be my wife

At the time I'd only ever lived in Mill Hill with my parents, but I totally got the feeling of outsiderness. Bowie was a fantastically good looking and successful man, he probably could have had any woman he wanted, but in this he's pleading. He is raging against loneliness. He wants someone to share his loneliness and take the pain away. As an insecure fourteen year old, this was the first first song I'd ever heard that I felt I could have written. Or maybe Bowie had written it specially for me, to help me get through a very difficult period.

Then there was "Speed of Life". What message did this send? Well it is an instrumental. But it was a the first song on the album. I would put the album on, switch off the light and the beauty of the music would just wash over me. Unlike many instrumentals, it is simple and beautiful. However I felt, it would make me feel better. These days we don't really get too many artists putting instrumental tracks on albums. I always got what Bowie was saying in the music, with or without lyrics.

As I progressed through my teens, I found that the people I got on best with also appreciated the music of Bowie. As well as Low, I loved "Station to Station". Golden Years is such a beautifully structured track. Over the years it has become my favourite Bowie song to chill to. On a pub jukebox, Rebel Rebel is the one, but in a quiet moment, Station to Station is like a rare treat to savour.

The legacy of Bowie for myself and most of my friends is immense. He was the one who gave us the permission to be ourselves and express ourselves. When we felt bad, he comforted and caressed us. When we were up for a party, he rocked. When we felt like outsiders, he was there to hold our hands and say "Don't give a f@ck, be yourself". It is no coincidence that most of the people who are my friends are Bowie fans. Oddly every one of us seem to have a different favourit song. For each of us (and believe me I've discussed this at great length with many of them), we find hidden meanings.

David Webb, a friend of Allen Ashley, singer in our band and another Bowie fan sent me this "found" Poem (it is put together from the lyrics of Bowie).

Better hang onto yourself -
Run for the shadows,
Because your face is a mess.
I’ve nothing much to offer,
I’m feeling very still.
Planet earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.
Millions weep a fountain -
Are immune to your consolations -
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
It ain’t easy
It’s absolutely true.
Never thought I’d need so many people.
I wish someone would phone

His animal grace
And snow white tan.
He could lick ‘em by smiling
Became the special man.
People stared at the make-up on his face
But he could eat you with a fork and spoon.
He was the nazz.
He left me an autograph
“Let me collect dust”
Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Had to phone someone
So I picked on you.
Don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright.
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about.
Let yourself go
Let the wind blow through your heart.
Pretty soon you’re going to get a little older
And try to get it on like once before.
You’ll make it.
I’ll help you with the pain,
Just watch me now.

You’re not alone
Gimme your hands.

What struck me was just how much of Bowies output was simply telling us it is OK, we'll be alright and unlike many rock/pop lyrics he is telling us he's there for us. His legacy is that there is a generation (maybe several) of people who feel just a bit more comfortable with themselves.

As I learned more about Bowie, I learned of his collaborations. These are too  numerous to list, but three in particular come to mind. Perhaps the strangest was the one with Lulu, for Man who sold the world. Lulu was a family entertainer, not someone in Bowies cool orbit, you'd think. Did that bother him? Not at all, he saw something and that was enough. For him Lulu was a serious artist and one he was quite happy to collaborate with. The collaboration producing Lou Reed on Transformer is perhaps the most iconic of Bowie's efforts for other artists. The album was brilliant and Bowie saw something in Reeds work which resulted in an album which is so original, beautiful and different from anything in the period. Sexuality is explored in a way that was so unique that the BBC didn't even realise what the keynote single "Walk on the Wild Side" was about, making it single of the week, then banning it when the penny dropped. The final collaboration that I find fascinating was with funk producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers. Rodgers work transformed Bowie from cult icon to international superstar. Bowie recognised that he needed a gear shift and chose the perfect collaborator. For Bowie he'd choose the right collaborator, regardless of sex, sexuality or colour. Bowie just chose the best person for the job and all of his collaborations brought freshness and vigour to his work. To me this is a sign of his incredible intellect and courage. So many artists have a couple of succesful records, then play safe and sit on the fence. For Bowie that was never an option. The last time I saw Bowie was in Brixton with Tin Machine. That project was widely criticised and mocked by the snobby music press. I thought the gig was pretty damned good, it was a privelidge to see Bowie in a small venue.

We sometimes forget just how long Bowies career actually was.  When Bowie started his musical career, we lived in a different world. Homosexuality was illegal, racism was commonplace and sexism was mandatory. Today sexuality is a non issue, we live and let live. Racism is the preserve of an ever shrinking bunch of idiots and sexism is on the retreat. We live in a saner, more tolerant,  more rational society. It is impossible to say just how much of this Bowie was responsible for, but I can think of no other individual who did more to break down these barriers. That is the legacy of David Bowie.

1 comment:

PaulW said...

Good one, Roger.