Throughout this week, the prevailing topic was the sad death of David Bowie, who died on Sunday following an 18-month battle with liver cancer that he kept hidden from all but those closest to him. According to recent reports, he had later been cremated in New York without a ceremony or anyone present, as per his wishes. The news of his surprise death sent shockwaves throughout the world, with his friends, his legions of fans, and the artists he inspired gathering in mourning, and his hometown of Brixton held a tribute to him on the streets. Because of the circumstances surrounding his death, the album Blackstar (which was released last Friday as what turned out to be his final album) took on a whole new meaning, as Bowie’s carefully planned finale. Several media outlets began writing about his life and lasting legacy, but today, since it’s been a while since I had written about him at all, I think it’s time for me to talk about how he has influenced me over years.
I remember the days when I left school and started college with vivid detail. Back in 2012, the musical climate was quite noxious, perhaps no different to that of today. By the time I finished sixth form, we had so-called artists like Ne-Yo, Avicii, Tinie Tempah, Katy Perry, Coldplay, Justin Bieber, 1Direction, David Guetta, and a dozen pop-punk bands blaring over the radio, and I absolutely hated them all. Hence I retreated into the realms of classic radio (by classic, I would have meant Absolute 80’s, which I used to listen to very frequently), and eventually came across the eternally catchy “Let’s Dance”, which I very quickly grew fond of. By then, I only knew David Bowie as the star of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (which has also grown on me over the years). Eventually I began looking into other works by the artist, and eventually came across the 70’s classic “Heroes” (arguably the best song ever made by a recording artist), which lead me to the album of the same, and that was the first album I listened to, in 2013. Hearing the album’s surreal fusion of krautrock, electronic and ambient music opened me to new possibilities, and left me wanting more.
As I got more into his music, I also starting paying close attention to his approach, his philosophy, and the many different personae he had taken on, each taking on a different style for every album, and telling a different kind of story. Throughout my life in college, I looked up to him and still do (though I guess now that would be looking up to the stars). He became perhaps my first role model that wasn’t a cartoon character, and so as could be expected of a teenaged college student, I tried being like him. I even tried to grow my hair to match one his hairstyles (specifically the side-parted hairstyle he displayed in A Reality Tour in 2003), before I eventually decided I wanted my hair to look like Rozz Williams, who was also very much influenced by David Bowie (he even sang like him). I found that the influence of Bowie was practically inescapable, as so many of the best bands wouldn’t have been around without him. Were it not for him, we wouldn’t have had the glam rockers, the new romantics, many of the alternative rock bands, gothic rock, and we certainly wouldn’t have had many of the greatest albums ever made. What else would have the stage persona of Marilyn Manson and Rozz Williams? Even Kiss wouldn’t have been Kiss without David Bowie, given that Kiss were very much influenced by the flamboyant stage persona of the Ziggy Stardust era, and then they went on to influence later hard rock and heavy metal bands. For me, his brought so many far-out ideas to music, fashion, film and art that he not only changed the currency of rock and pop, but also changed the landscape of culture itself.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from his music was that being different is wonderful thing. All my life I knew I was a weird kid, being an autistic boy who went off on his own tangent in a society that treats that as a bad thing, or more or less an inconvenience. Listening to David Bowie’s music, studying his overall approach, and becoming a fan of his music taught me that being radically different from the crowd is its own reward, and that there are no real boundaries other than what you make for yourself. With that in mind, his death was perhaps the biggest loss in recent history. Almost certainly I would have felt a rather horrible shock when I heard this, hoping that this wasn’t true. For me it was a day of silent mourning, a day of grief, but also a day of reflection. Even Bowie’s death sent a powerful message. He was a man that, despite suffering from cancer, kept on going until the end, while simultaneously he knew the end was coming. In the words of Tony Visconti, “he fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all”. It struck me how he not only managed to keep his illness hidden, but also how he didn’t let it keep him from doing what he did best. I also found it quite a humbling and sobering thought that Blackstar turned out to be his final album, and a carefully planned requiem from an artist who foresaw his own death.
For me, that we lost a true icon is not the saddest part of it all. The saddest part is that David Bowie and all the other great artists are slowly dying off, and the music industry is attempting to replace them with the same trashy pop artists I hated years ago. The problem is that these newer radio stars may be somewhat skilled at marketing themselves, but they lack the talent and creative intuition that made the artists of Bowie’s generation great, and that is why they will never replace the greatest of artists, and they certainly cannot replace Bowie. In fact, his death doesn’t represent an end at all, because nobody is forgotten as long as we remember him. For that reason, the memory of David Bowie will be practically immortal, certainly outliving the man himself, as well as all of us on Earth. The fact that we are still talking about him is a testament to the tremendous impact he’s had on his fans. In life, he was the brightest of all stars, and that is how I believe he will be remembered for generations to come.