R.I.P. David Bowie, 1947 – 2016
The words 'genius' and 'legend' are perhaps some of the most overused in the English language, but in the case of David Bowie, not only are both justifiably accurate, they barely come close to telling the whole story. As the world awoke this morning to the news that David Robert Jones had lost a courageous 18-month battle with cancer – an illness many fans didn't even know he was afflicted by - the sense of loss and emptiness was palpable.
Anyone scrolling through the outpourings of grief on social media this morning could hardly fail to be struck by the depth and breadth of feeling towards an artist who has, quite literally, provided the soundtrack to so many lives over the last half a century. His contribution to to the world of music is immeasurable, his influence on the wider world practically unquantifiable.
Born in Brixton in 1947 to a waitress mother and a father who worked for children's charity Barnado's, Bowie's inauspicious beginnings could barely hint at the future that lay ahead of him. Even at an early age his talent was already becoming evident; Christopher Sandford's 1997 biography Bowie: Loving the Alien relates an early performance as part of a skiffle group for his local Cub Scout group, which a witness describes as “mesmerizing... like someone from another planet.”
These early perceptions pointed towards an unearthly quality that Bowie would retain and continue to project throughout his career. Even as his breakthrough arrived with the bafflingly beautiful 'Space Oddity', Bowie sensed the limitations of his own image, preferring instead to present himself as a series of fantastical personas like Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, giving him an almost immortal quality and the ability to change and reinvent himself as his creative restlessness would again and again take him – and us – in exciting new directions.
Even some of those born too late to witness the heady days of his musical brilliance in the 1960s and 70s grew to love him from his appearances as an actor in films like Labyrinth, only later arriving at Bowie's huge back catalogue of hits and game-changing albums, with each generation falling in love with his work for different reasons to the last. His appeal was almost universal - punks, hippies, mods, new romantics – it didn't matter who you were or how you identified yourself, it was still OK to like Bowie.
Right up until the end, Bowie was still pushing, still challenging himself, still trying to distill and redefine his experience and existence with the single-minded compulsion that only a genius can. His last album, Blackstar, released only a few days ago, is as complex and brilliant a piece of work as any you'll hear, and it's only now that its significance is coming into focus. As the world mourns the loss of an artist who was, truly, one in a billion, it's almost impossible to find the words deserving of a tribute, so we won't try.
Instead we will leave you with words from Bowie himself, taken from his final single, 'Lazarus':
“Look up here, I'm in Heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen / I've got drama, can't be stolen / Everyone knows me now / This way or no way, I'll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now ain't that just like me.”
Rest in Peace David, thanks for everything.