YESTERDAY I LOOKED out my window overlooking Francis Street in the Liberties in Dublin City Centre. A tall, effete flâneur in his early twenties strolled up the pavement sporting a top hat with a very ostentatious red feather sprouting out of it.
He had long, fine hair, a trimmed beard, heeled boots and a slender, effeminate great coat. I pointed him out to my wife and simply found myself saying “Bowie made that possible.” And he did.
There was a time when such attire in the Liberties might have easily resulted in that man being beaten or even stabbed. No more. And this is only one direct consequence of the influential outrage-towards-normalisation ethos encapsulated by the now dead artist David Bowie.
Later that day I took to the streets to try and process what had just happened, hoping I could find some coordinates that might collide with my frankly bizarre grief.
A bad year for my heroes
In retrospect, it had been a bad year for heroes – personal favourites Daevid Allen (Gong), Lemmy and now Bowie had all expired, returning to the dirt from whence they came. I started to think of that line by Joni Mitchell, about how we were stardust.
But if “the dust blows forward and the dust blows back”, in the words of another dead hero of mine, its star varies wildly, and its glow is the light of a past long gone.
Still, I had had the privilege of growing up with Bowie, having been born just before the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It took me eight years to cop Bowie, however. One Friday night in winter 1980, I snuck a transistor radio into the bathroom unbeknownst to my parents and turned it on while I emptied a half bottle of “Matey” into the tub.
The Dave Fanning Show was on – not that I really cared as I surrounded myself with my plastic boats, probably configuring some tragic-accidental seascape of bubble bath icebergs and impassable straits. Suddenly, I was seized by the most ethereal acoustic guitar chords I had ever beheld in my eight wild years on earth.
It was A Space Oddity, and something transformative happened as the song unwound. For the first time in my life, my thought process stopped to actually consciously listen to a piece of music. I had been basking in tunes all my life thanks to the record collections of my older siblings, but this was the very first time I became conscious of the fact that music was not just some convenient innate soundtrack underscoring my childhood existence.
In this moment, I suddenly became aware of a song that was outside of me, outside of my sphere of existence, coldly, yet brilliantly indifferent to it. And, of course, it was a song about being lost (voluntarily) in space! That might well have been my introduction to the concept of objectivity (albeit without knowing what to call it).
So, at aged eight, my introduction to Bowie was a sort of out-of-body experience. Thirty-five years later, on the day Bowie left his body, or it left him, or whatever, the loss feels more subjective, more personal, even if half the world accompanies me in mourning. I take the death of David Bowie very personally because it appears he has always been lurking in the wings of my life.
For many years, if you were in the business of thinking about it, Bowie was the pop-cultural gold standard against which you constantly had to re-adjust yourself. Outside the myriad failed attempts to “Bowify” myself in earlier years (including efforts to replicate the Burberry chic of Absolute Beginners on a paltry rural teen pocket and some clothesline theft) there were genuine landmarks in my life that directly involved the Thin White Duke.
Meeting my wife
Most notably when I met my wife for the first time, in a bar on Paris’s left bank. It was our mutual interest in Bowie that sealed our deal. When the bar we had just met in closed abruptly for the night, she whisked me off to an incredibly dingy troquet run by a Portuguese man with a glass eye who was said to be heavily armed at all times.
Our drunken entrance was received with exactly that type of suspension of conversation and activity you saw in westerns, only to be broken by the loud exigency that the owner, José, immediately put “the David Bowie video” on his video projector screen. It was important! I expected to be murdered there and then, but José simply replied “ouima puce!” and, in grave agreement with my future wife, directly obliged.
Yesterday morning I couldn’t bring myself to wake my wife to tell her Bowie was dead. I did eventually, but it was hard. It then struck me how entirely bizarre it was that I was treating this death almost like that of a family member. It really seemed that personal. Yet I imagine many fans have their own personal Bowie.
Actually the word “fan” is inappropriate. I would prefer to say apostle, because Bowie was perennially a matter of conversion. One had Damascus moments with him (Ziggy to Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke), Gethsemane moments with him (Tin Machine), instants of high conviction or doubt, or attempted indifference (Earthling), but always always always this inevitability that you had to deal with Bowie one way or another.
What do we do in a world without David Bowie?
If there is one Bowie invocation that sticks in my heart it is the injunction to “turn and face the strange” – again, a command to objectivity, to defamiliarise yourself and confront the unknown, to consider the other – an order of deep philosophical and artistic resonance. And yet this was a command issued in an ostensibly simple “pop” song.
Which brings me to the onerous reflection: what do we do in a world without David Bowie? And what does so-called “pop” do?
These are not flippant questions. In the slipstream of the sixties, the current in which we still swam until relatively recently, many of us genuinely believed that music mattered, that it was more than music, that is was a function of our lives’ parameters ranging from collective hopes to collective dread, from aspiration to apocalypse. And not without reason.
By way of example, Bowie was the first artist of his profile to overtly abandon America and head for Berlin, which from 1948 to at least 1989 was the actual and perilous centre of the world, the crucial nexus of the Cold War.
What poignancy there was in Bowie’s defection from the plastic white soul cabaret of Young Americans towards the city whose infamous asbestos wall split the world in half, both ideologically and potentially atomically.
Still reeling from American cocaine and flash cars, this was a practical as well as symbolic to be or not to be moment. This was the quandary of the artist in 1976, and its gravitas was obliquely refracted in the year zero of punk.
Today’s current ‘pop’ scene
Worryingly, it is very hard to imagine any parallel gesture on the current “pop” landscape. Which returns me to my initial question, what do we do in a world without David Bowie?
When Lemmy died I really thought the final nail had been driven into the coffin of a broad mentality that had taken root in the mid 1960s and had persisted until perhaps the mid 1990s, i.e. that there was some sort of context, or content, or conviction in rock and roll culture that had mattered and still mattered; that despite commercial failure or success there was something in it – a perspective on the world, a space for socio-critical self-interrogation, a zone of engagement.
With Captain Beefheart, Daevid Allen, Lou Reed and Lemmy dead, much of that has since felt very alien, distant. But then I had never even imagined Bowie would die.
He seemed to be too gigantic a paradigm to expire. But now he is dead, and I really do wonder what world there will be in that wake.
Damien Lennon is a Dublin-based freelance writer, critic and founding member of experimental rock group ¡NO!