The outpouring of reaction to David Bowie's death surprised me, though it probably should not have. The papers gave it somewhat less space than George Harrison received (front page stories, full page obits), but if anything far more columnists and feature writers tripped over each other to give their own versions of his universal importance to them. I discussed this briefly on the Americarnage podcast (show 203 at americarnage.co.uk) but it's worth a deeper examination.
It's in the adolescent/teen years that music has its deepest hold on most people, and that music stays with them all their lives. The columnists and other opinion makers now are of a generation that grew up with Bowie, in the Seventies, rather than the Fifties and Sixties music I reference so often, which was the music of the columnists and editors when Harrison died.
But that didn't explain the emotional impact, beyond the media. One friend of mine, who hit her teens in the early seventies, told me yesterday she burst into tears when she heard the news and was crying all through the day-- and this chimed with the response that inspired my first reaction, as I said on Americarnage, which was to consider what made Bowie so meaningful to them, while it was nothing of import to me.
The music I grew up with was directed outward. It was aimed at trying to navigate and solve and fight through the problems kids encountered growing up. Originally much of it was being written by adults aimed at kids. But even as the younger generation took over the production, even at its rebellious peak, it was music aimed at coping with the world outside, and maybe changing it, of coping with the ways it would come down on you.
David Bowie's music was doing something different: it was dealing with equipping the vulnerable self to cope with the vicissitudes of that world by escaping it. Bowie's music encompassed the showmanship of adopting new identities, many of them extra-terrestrial, showing there were ways of creating a new you with whom you might feel more comfortable regardless of what was going on outside your room. It was a way of protecting yourself against the ways the world came down on you. It also suggested freedoms to be different from the world well beyond those of the generation before.
It wasn't the music per se. Many commentators wanted to cast Bowie as a revolutionary or innovator musically, but he really wasn't, and that wasn't where his influence lay. My friend Cynthia Rose, for whom I wrote at City Limits some 30 years ago, dug up an interview with Bowie she did in 1983, and she said in its introduction that 'when he achieved profundity it almost always occurred by accident or as a result of his long, usually misunderstood, relationships with three major sources: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Robert Fripp.' This is not to minimise his talent (though I'd add Brian Eno to that list of his influences); he made pop songs with catchy hooks and often fantastical themes; as an example of that, he gave Mott the Hoople their best song (the only one I ever paid any attention to); and he had a distinct flair for the dramatic tied to a moment in time. Even his final, darkest record was timed to his own passing. When he did the words for Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays's 'This Is Not America', a song I listen to often, given that I live in Britain, he sung them with his voice that was actually most effective in the lower registers, and gave the song an uncertainty and depth that the lyrics don't immediately suggest, and which Pat Metheny Group's own versions, while often more attractive instrumentally, often lack.
I said on Americarnage that Bowie's influence lay in the adoption of identities, and Cynthia made an interesting point, comparing him to dandies and pointing out how the original dandies, who confronted society, mutated into the Noel Coward or Cole Porter versions, 'men who sought to sell the world placebos for its deepest needs...demonstrating that the displaced self could celebrate, rather than solve, its losses.' She pointed out how he was 'merchandising other people's 'explorations of the isolated heart and mind', offering 'conceits of style' because he was, at heart, 'conventional'. And remember, Cynthia wrote that more than 30 years ago.
It chimes with what I said on Americarnage, and the range of Bowie's work, particularly outside the music world, reinforces that. He did telling, though not transcendent, work outside music, in a way moving with the times but also moving on from image-oriented music into fields where he could play with that image and often work against it.
Where Bowie's influence might well have been greatest is in the people who followed and borrowed from him. What is Madonna, after all, if not a David Bowie for the next generation, and there is a major essay to be written on the way she provided girls with a female equivalent of the androgynous male with whom they could identify their angst. I think of George Clinton, Parliament and Funkadelic, as a sort of ironic parody of this, all Mothership and Garry Shider in diapers, with more than a hint of suggestion to the audience to question the placebo they're being handed. Maybe they were the way my generation could interpret Bowie.
Perhaps it's all just generation gapping in the end, perhaps it's just my being a curmudgeon not getting what the next generation gets instinctively. It's an almost inevitable progression, though, from the adoption of a new form of music to the adoption of new identities on stage, to the acting out of science fiction and the emperor's new clothes on stage. But that's not what he was being mourned for. Maybe combining Iggy Pop and Robert Heinlein was an innovation, but it was his understanding of alienation that lay behind what was covered up by the glitter; that was Bowie's real achievement, and what brought so many people to honest tears when he died.