It wasn’t a coincidence that David Bowie’s last album Blackstar was full of references to death and contemplations of mortality – he had been battling cancer for almost two years when he recorded it, and in typical Bowie fashion had told this to his fans by way of conceptual art piece rather than stoic public announcement – but I did experience a slightly strange coincidence on the day he died.
I was listening to him on repeat on the train from Euston to Coventry and reading one of his many obituaries – in particular, one by Brian Eno that mentioned how Bowie would sign off each message to him with a new invented name, “Mr. Showbusiness”, “Dawn”, “Milton Keynes.” At this exact moment, the train pulled into Milton Keynes station (a place so bland that it would be most accurately described as “the opposite of David Bowie”) – it was an insignificant event, but one that amused me. I noticed my phone was low on battery, so I turned off the music and started reading Fernando Pessoa instead – a writer who throughout his career invented a multitude of heteronyms, different personas (with invented lives and personalities) that he would write from the perspective of. Critics note that this technique allowed him to express himself more fully by understanding just how difficult the individual ‘self’ is to grasp, just how multifaceted it is, how anyone contains contradicting multitudes, how we are perhaps really composed of many ‘selves’. And so, again, I was thinking of Bowie.
The moment David Bowie arrived, he was an invention
The moment David Bowie arrived, he was an invention – he’d taken the surname over his actual name “Jones” in tribute to the Bowie knife – but it took a while for him to really leave the ground in the fantastical nature of his personas. The first two albums saw him flirt with genre after genre, but the third is where he started to present himself as an artwork: he appears on the front lounging in a dress with his hair grown beyond his shoulders. This androgyny was pivotal; Bowie was about breaking down boundaries. Gender was completely unimportant; it could be played with at will. He declared himself openly gay in an era where it was extremely rare and dangerous to do so, even though he wasn’t. He was soon to declare himself an alien sex god from Mars, even though he was from South London. His image was catching up with his music, which existed beyond any sort of rigid categorisation or rules.
And then came Ziggy Stardust. Primarily combining Iggy Pop’s punk rock decadence with dream-like sci-fi, he appeared in a chest-bearing, skin-tight shining suit with a giant gold circle painted on his forehead, with make-up that passed from androgynous into surreal. Here, he achieved something completely new in music. Musicians had changed their image before, such as The Beatles’ progression from clean-cut to hippie, but Bowie completely invented a character. He added a whole new element to the idea of performance in music: something massive, spectacular, hyper-real. It combined with the music, which found influence in sources from rock music to old dancehall balladry, to create something otherworldly: it was generation defining, and the character he invented – the imagery of it – was just as important as the music. It gave him licence to make art with scale and ambition, with spectacular, new weirdness.
He added a whole new element to the idea of performance in music: something massive, spectacular, hyper-real.
And then he killed off Ziggy. And, like the ‘Lazarus’ of his final music video, he was reborn. And each rebirth was a different form of Bowie that revealed more about the person at its heart. In Young Americans, he became a blue-eyed soul singer, suited and smooth. In the Berlin period, we saw “The Thin White Duke”, who was supposed to be cold and detached whilst singing songs of astonishing emotional intensity; an embodiment of both the artificial futurism of the music and its themes, and the effects of his drug addiction. Bowie was never static: again and again, versions of him died and were reborn, and his music pushed forward with his imagery. He didn’t do this to keep up with the times: rather, as is fitting for someone so influenced by science fiction, the times had to rush to keep up with him.
This idea of assumed personas and performance fitted perfectly in cinema, whether he was the alien of The Man Who Fell to Earth, or the goblin king of Labyrinth – he could slide into new identities with ease, and they all became more iconic than most stars can manage with their one identity through their whole career. A famous GIF that’s been circulating recently shows just how many there are, and just how distinctive each is. It’s an incredible thing to see. If they shared one thing in common, it was that there were never normal: aided by his odd personality and aesthetic sense, as well as his sharp features and unique mismatched eyes, Bowie was always an embodiment of weird, an embodiment of something far greater than normal. And it might be gauche to try attach a greater lesson or meaning onto all of this, but there was something important in this: he showed generation upon generation that they could be weird too. They could present themselves however they wanted to be. For the alienated, they had a hero in this man who referred to himself as an actual alien. He allowed people to be whatever they wanted to be.