Bowie: Shape-shifter whose genius defined spirit of the age

Millions dreamed they could be like him, but rock star was without equal

Laurence Mackin Arts / Ticket Editor of The Irish Times looks back over the life of singer-songwriter David Bowie who has died aged 69 following an 18 month battle with cancer.

 

David Bowie was the most elegant, most elusive and most fiercely imaginative of all rock stars. On his 69th birthday, on Friday, he had released his final album to wide acclaim.

The timing was not accidental. Bowie understood how to stage a coup de théâtre. In the Hammersmith Odeon 42½ years ago he killed his creation Ziggy Stardust in front of thousands of appalled teenage fans.

In a career that spanned six decades he reinvented his stage persona countless times. He took the idea of celebrity and turned it into a long-running piece of conceptual art. In news bulletins since his death on Sunday following an 18-month battle with cancer, he has been described as a singer-songwriter, which seems hopelessly inadequate.

He was David Bowie. There was no one like him, although millions dreamed they could be.

In the early 1970s, at a time when boys were boys and girls were girls, Bowie strode on to television screens in mascara and sequins, singing crystalline pop anthems such as Starman.

He claimed to be gay but he wrote love songs to his wife and son. How could you trust anything he said? Or was that the point?

“All art is unstable,” he said. “Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.” Parents harrumphed while their offspring silently took note.

Authenticity

Truth, if it existed, was to be found in fiction. And even then it was elliptical, transitory, sometimes hallucinatory. Truth was a lovesick alien lost on a cold, uncaring Earth, a single long, distorted screech on a synthesiser, a lightning flash across a human face. But it was also a heart-rending ballad or a rabble-rousing anthem. Ask any enthusiast to pick their Bowie playlist; it’s unlikely any two will be the same.

The history of popular music has always been one of plagiarism, but Bowie elevated that grubby truth to a creative manifesto. He dived into the treasure chest of pop, pulling out English music hall, French chanson, New York art rock, electronica, jazz and more, bringing the experimental and the new crashing and banging into the mainstream.

Musically, he invented much of the landscape of the decades that followed.

He ran out of creative road in the 1990s, and it’s clear the prospect of playing the hits on the heritage rock circuit did not appeal to such an anti-nostalgist.

Intellectual curiosity

A heart attack in 2004 seemed to mark the end of his career as a recording artist. Then, surprisingly, two fine albums appeared within less than two years in what we now know was a valedictory flourish.

The first seemed like an examination of all that had gone before. The new one, Blackstar, appeared to be looking to the future, stylistically, but maybe not in the way we thought.

In the last 24 hours, many claims have been made for Bowie: that he was the most influential musician of his generation; the most innovative; and that he was a first beacon of light for many searching to understand their own sexuality.

All of this is probably more or less true, but it seems reductionist. Bowie was a shape-shifter, a teenage idol, an intellectual ground-breaker, a beautiful singer (lest we forget), an artist, a cracked actor and much more.

His genius was to catch the spirit of the age and distil it into something that somehow made sense for millions of people. He was utterly unique.

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