Way to go, David…

I, personally, do not know how I would react if told I had 18 months to live. For David Bowie the answer was to record a final album, and to bow out gracefully without any fuss

It is true that I feel I know him a little better now that he’s dead. And that alone makes an extraordinary end to what can only be described as an extraordinary career.
It is true that I feel I know him a little better now that he’s dead. And that alone makes an extraordinary end to what can only be described as an extraordinary career.

In a way, I almost feel doubly sorry for Alan Rickman. Not only did he pass away this week at the not-quite venerable age of 69 – robbing both stage and cinema of a rare combination of sublime acting talent and basic human decency – but he did this just two days after the world had already woken to the news that David Bowie was no more. 

I am reminded of Titus Andronicus’s reaction when confronted with the brutally dismembered remains of his beloved son. Sorry, Alan: it’s not that I won’t miss you, or think any less of your accomplishments. But I have no more tears to shed. There is only so much grief a man can afford to invest in dead celebrities he never knew personally. And Bowie has exhausted my entire supply for the next 10 years at least.

There is, however, something almost appropriate about the timing. It is almost another example of David Bowie having ‘been there and done that’ before… setting a few dozen trends along the way. Bowie dies unexpectedly at 69? Why, it follows that someone else would copy the idea, and do exactly the same thing a few days later. It is exactly how Bowie’s entire career had unfolded from the very beginning. 

And what a career, too. I spent the past few days going over his entire discography – concentrating for the most part on that dizzying bust of creativity between 1969 and (roughly) 1985 – and I was almost startled by the number of things I suddenly seemed to notice for the first time. 

One of the things that had initially attracted me to Bowie’s music were the lyrics. Around 20 years ago, I remember thinking that ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was an underrated lyrical masterpiece, to be considered for literary merit alongside Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, John Donne, etc.

All these years later, I realise I was listening to it then at roughly the same age as Bowie was when he wrote the album 10 years earlier. Yes, of course we both thought that ‘quoting Nietzsche’ would automatically qualify your work for serious academic acclaim. Years later, Bowie would express embarrassment over the lyrics to ‘The Supermen’… and listening to it again today, I find myself cringing on his behalf. 

But that is also what makes the connection to David Bowie so much more visceral than other artists: there is a sense of having grown up together, and evolved accordingly along our different lines.

Not many recording artists can claim the same connection. Not all songwriters open windows through which you can catch occasional glimpses of their inner psyche. Offhand, the only other example I can think of (not counting the dead, of course) is Bob Dylan. Bowie himself must have felt the same way about Robert Allen Zimmermann – he dedicated a song to Dylan on ‘Hunky Dory’, an album which probably would never have existed at all, had Bowie not one day listened to ‘Highway 61 Revisited’.

What both artists have in common – apart from their mutual influence on each other – is that you can simply get lost in the various chapters and interludes of their prolific careers. In the course of 28 studio albums, David Bowie exhibited a startling personal artistic evolution, each individual phase accompanied by a sudden, often inexplicable transformation. 

It wasn’t just the make-up and the wardrobe that changed from act to act: the musical direction between Space Oddity (1969) and Heroes (1977) seems to bifurcate exponentially with each new turn. One of the albums I had often overlooked was ‘Young Americans’ (1976) – it is almost impossible to reconcile the chirpy, jazzy feel of that record with the one that came immediately before: ‘Diamond Dogs’, which at moments sounds like the soundtrack to a horror film. 

(Speaking of which: another case of been there, done that: vide ‘Cat People’.)

Until you pay attention to the lyrics. The second thing I noticed – and which startled me more – was how very dark it often was to be lost in Bowieland. If we can talk of common threads running through the corridors of his work, one recurring theme would have to be the monumental loneliness of the quintessential ‘other’.

‘Space Oddity’, on the surface, tells of an astronaut who loses contact with Ground Control and drifts off into space. Later, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ would expand the image into a metaphor for heroin addiction (“We know Major Tom’s a junkie”). But even here, a decade later, Bowie is still ‘sitting in a tin can’, far above a world he cannot reach. “I want an axe to break the ice,” he sings. “I want to come down right now…”

And for all his chameleon-like “Ch-Ch-Changes”, this one theme remains constant throughout the various incarnations. Regardless of the exterior guise, Bowie remains the enigma from another world… the one who can’t fit in, but just drifts endlessly in a parallel universe of his own.

In ‘Heroes’, he tells us that the ‘scene was on the other side’. In ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, people no longer walk, but “just glide in and out of life”. In ‘DJ’ (Lodger), Bowie muses what his ‘gal’ might be doing out there, while he himself is stuck in yet another tin-can – the DJ booth. 

“Maybe she’s dancing. What do I know?”

In all incarnations, there is an invisible barrier that separates David Bowie from the rest of us on that blue planet below. In Lady Stardust, he “sighs sadly for a love that [he] could not obey”. And oh, how they all stared at this creature fair, when he first irrupted onto British television with ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops…

To my mind, the most haunting of these images can be felt throughout the entire album that most eloquently expresses Bowie’s endless drift through this forlorn, hopeless wasteland called ‘existence’.

 On ‘Low’ – recorded, like Heroes, with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti in divided Berlin, mid-1970s – David Bowie describes the sensation of “going round and round the hotel garage… must have been touching close to 94… but I’m always crashing in the same car…”

There is a sense of exhilaration, but also futility. It is a distant future echo of the condemned boy’s ironic boast on “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (Space Oddity): “You’ll lose me, but I’m always really free!”… as the same, circular chord progression drones on endlessly in the background. 

In the end, the wild-eyed boy is indeed rescued from the gallows to return to his beloved mountain. But if he is ‘free’, it is only to desolately “kick back the pebbles on the Freecloud mountain track.”

It is a harrowing image, and as might be expected – for Bowie was consistent beneath his endless shapeshifting  – it is also the last image of himself he actually left us with. The ‘Lazarus’ video ends with a final withdrawal, at the natural end of a transitory existence, into a dark wardrobe in the corner. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now…”

It is true that I feel I know him a little better now that he’s dead. And that alone makes an extraordinary end to what can only be described as an extraordinary career. 

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this posthumous re-immersion into Bowieland is how strangely positive the experience feels, for all the underlying gloom of the lyrics. He somehow managed to translate all that into music that was light years ahead of its time, profoundly inspirational and almost epoch-defining. (I, for one, have yet to hear a more resonant echo of the 1970s than ‘All the Young Dudes’…, which he didn’t even write for himself…). 

Earlier comparisons to great poets may have been misplaced – on the level of lyrics alone. But put the whole package together – including the musical innovation, and the broader impact on fashion, visual arts, etc  – and we can certainly talk of David Bowie as a cultural phenomenon along similar lines. Like other great artists before him, he left an unmistakable imprint of his own.

The last thing he left us with is the one that has most resonance, to anyone who likewise feels like he’s “always crashing in the same car”. As with all Bowie’s lifetime accomplishments, it was not so much the fact that he went that is remarkable. It is the way that he went.

I, personally, do not know how I would react if told I had 18 months to live. For David Bowie, the answer was to record a final album – thus placing his own affirmation on the death warrant, and appropriating it as his last curtain call – and to bow out gracefully without any fuss. No funeral service, no public ceremony… just the last draw on that cigarette handed to him by Time at the beginning of ‘Rock N Roll Suicide’, before quietly stubbing it out.

What a way to go…