24 hours on, some thoughts on David Bowie’s legacy
I work in a small room at the back of the house and, as I’ve learned over the years, you can pack a lot of ephemera, books, magazines, posters, music and junk into a small room. Some of the stuff comes, stays around for a few weeks and then goes. Other stuff sticks around for a lot longer. For the last two and a half years, a set of David Bowie postcards, picked up at the David Bowie Is exhibition at London’s V&A Museum, have been sitting on the sound system. Every time I go to play a piece of music, Bowie as Ziggy Stardust has been staring back at me. I didn’t think I was a fan, but he was part of the furniture.
It wasn’t just the furniture that he was part of either. There were several moments yesterday when I had to stop what I was doing and check if I was listening to what I thought I was listening to. I didn’t realise I had stuck on Boards of Canada or Susumu Yokota in the middle of a morning where it was all Bowie all the time. But no, I hadn’t, it was just Bowie being Bowie. “Art Decade” from “Low” and “Moss Garden” from “Heroes” are just two examples of sketches which went on to influence others in so many ways.
We’ve heard and read a lot about Bowie’s shape-shifting and characters, the way in which he was so ahead of the rest of us because of a quest, a desire, an urge to never be tied down. Yet Bowie’s real shape-shifting had as much to do with how his songs and sounds spread to become the songs and sounds of others as anything else. We took more of Bowie than we left because there was so much to borrow and appropriate.
We’ll probably take much from “Blackstar” too. Over the weekend, the reviews of the new album had piqued my interest – Bowie and jazz are a trigger combination for curiosity – so I found myself listening to “Blackstar” again and again. Every few hours, I’d find myself marvelling at what he was doing. He was cutting new shapes, finding another way to express the elements of life, love and, as we know now, death, making sure he didn’t repeat himself. Loose-limbed and refreshing, “Blackstar” was a musical break from the old routine with lyrics, insights and thoughtlines which now seem all the more poignant and prescient because of what happened. Just imagine the spookiness had album release dates not moved to Fridays and this arrived yesterday morning along with news of his death.
There has been much lovely, poignant and powerful writing about Bowie in the 24 hours after his death which will be read and collated in years to come. That media pattern which always unfolds when someone like Bowie dies was in full effect. Tributes from the great and the good, recollections from those who may have known or met the person in question, what-does-it-all-mean pointyheaded uhms and aahs from everyone else: you know the drill and that’s before you get to the flood of lists of videos, tracks, albums, gigs, influences and what-have-you to fill more space and airtime.
But those pieces and recollections can’t really hold a candle to the thrills of the music which is out there on album after album and will be a click or a hand away forever. That’s why musicians record music, to leave their mark when they retreat from the pitch and call it a day. That’s the real legacy, that’s the stuff we’ll return to when the numbness following his death fades and we want to reach out for something else. That’s when the music will take over and we’ll realise just how much Bowie’s music has wound its way into the ether and under our skin. Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry? There’s actually lots of them, but it was often the graceful, poignant, elegant music which underpinned the track which caught you sideways and made you swoon. Bowie, that beautiful bastard, always knew how to make you swoon.
It wasn’t just the music either. He left his mark on other spheres too and we’re all the better for that eternal curiosity which drove him on to explore film, art, mime and theatre. When it came to gender and sexuality, he was just as open, captivating and inspirational for fellow outsiders. He applied broad brushstrokes to the canvas and so many followed the swing and sway of them because they knew those strokes were worth tracking and learning from. Bowie told bold steps which inspired others to follow suit with imprints of their own.
He was the one who sought to do something new, something different, something else every time he went on the pitch. Sometimes, it worked like gangbusters and sometimes, well sometimes, it didn’t because you can’t be right all the time. No matter, unlike others who’d lick their wounds and retreat to the comfort of repitition, he’d come round again with something new, something different, something else. Isn’t that what music and art are supposed to be about anyway? Something new, something different, something else every time? Isn’t that the glorious freedom all artists have and cherish and hold dear – and which Bowie relished and made the most of at every opportunity?
Something new, something different, something else: that’s what made Bowie stand out from the pack year after year, decade after decade. That’s the legacy. To the very end with “Blackstar”, he was doing just that. The real legacy, the real mark of the man. I spent a few hours last night watching video after video on a couple of TV channels and the weight and heft and depth and width of music he produced is staggering. So we’ll still have the albums and the photos and the videos and the bon-mots and the interviews and the correspondance with friends to remind us of what we’re missing.
But Bowie was never finished and what we won’t have is the thrill of the new, the unexpected, the next. And that, more than anything else, is what we’ll end up missing the most.