David Bowie: The Lazarus of Brixton
“I’m not a prophet or a stone aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman. I’m living on.”
10th January, 2016, sometime in the afternoon, I woke up. An unusual time to wake up I admit and it was made all the more unusual by what followed. A brief browse through social networks while still lazing in bed, found me confronted with the news of the death of David Robert Jones, known to pretty much everybody as David Bowie. So what made this unusual? The fact he was a celebrity? Well, not quite. There’s more to him that that.
A basic internet search tells you David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) was an English songwriter, singer, record producer, actor and painter. His work in popular music over five decades, particularly the 1970’s era led to him being considered as an innovator by critics and fellow musicians. His impact was enormous, having changed the nature or rock music and frequently, his own approach towards the same. As a person, Bowie was noted for his wit and wisdom – you know it just from his sly and sassy remark on being labelled the ‘Chameleon of Rock’, to which he said “Doesn’t a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?”
It is interesting how the sudden death of an influential person in someone’s life can have them revisiting over the course of a few hours or days, how that person touched their life. I found myself thinking of how I discovered Bowie’s music, got curious about him and was eventually won over by him. It’s said that a song can become ‘yours’ if you can find yourself in it – be it in a line it contains, a scenario it explores or even a feeling you get from hearing it. By this logic, a few Bowie songs have the potential to trigger memories of certain moments in my life.
The first song to strike me was the Queen and Bowie collaboration ‘Under Pressure’. As a child, one doesn’t initially comprehend how the world is going downhill with the ubiquitous need to successful, popular and living to expectations leaving little room for failure and divergence in modern society. The song depicts how growing up, one faces a moment of initial terror upon realizing the world is far less accepting and open than is made out to be. People use the term ‘love’ as being the answer to the problems of the world but I found Bowie’s argument that people are usually too selfish or selfless in their love to care about the people of the world to really hit the mark with its naked realism. Yet, he ultimately concurs that love, along with higher perceptions with regard to us and each other is possibly the way forward.
During the climax of the film ‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’, we see one of the central characters reminiscing about how she discovered ‘The Tunnel Song’, a song she claims makes a person feel ‘infinite’. It did just that for me – made me feel alive and in the moment. I was overwhelmed and the ‘tunnel’ visuals in the film only bolstered the experience. ‘The Tunnel Song’ is ‘”Heroes”’ by David Bowie. Here I pose some questions: Have you ever fallen in love? A love which was never to be? Then looked back on the precise moment you became enamoured with the other? Then this song is likely to move you, in ways similar to my own. ‘”Heroes”’ is primarily a reflective fantasy about two doomed lovers whose desire for happiness and love keeps them defying all odds in order to be together – just for a day. Elsewhere, the narrative allows for brief instances where reality breaches the walls of fantasy and one questions whether the love described is forbidden love, perhaps hinting at Bowie’s own experiences as a bisexual man at that time. In the end, Bowie implies that the lovers weren’t suited to each other. Echoing Robert Browning, he however requests ‘the one day’ leaving the listener to ponder over whether it’s the right action to take.
The aforementioned songs urged me to seek out more of his music. As I made my way through the Bowie canon, it became increasingly apparent to me that the songs I gravitated towards tended to explore rather personal feelings, provided apt social commentary and if not anything else, contained good old story-telling. This didn’t come as a surprise since by Bowie’s admission, he was primarily a writer who wanted to contribute to the culture he was living in and relished the challenge of taking it in interesting directions. His writing finesse is also very apparent on the song ‘Life on Mars?’ which tells the story of a young girl’s disillusionment with reality whilst also painting a variety of surreal images. The song continues to be regarded as a masterpiece.
I find Bowie’s first hit in ‘Space Oddity’ to be another example of his story-telling abilities in songs, boasting of a story which takes on multiple interpretations. It explores the journey of a fictional astronaut named Major Tom and his journey from Earth to space, his feelings upon leaving his vessel to float in space, gazing at the stars which look different and then deciding to not return to Earth. It can be interpreted as a satire on the then British space programme, a metaphor on leaving one’s comfort zone to embrace risks, a subtle take on achieving stardom, giving up on life owing to lack of control over the direction it’s headed, respectively. In later years, particularly on the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’, Bowie revisits Major Tom and says that he’s a junkie, which throws an entirely new light on ‘Space Oddity’. On further analysis, one can draw a parallel between the narrative and a drug/acid trip. The song can now be interpreted as Major Tom taking drugs of some form, having an out of body experience, traversing on a downward spiral and getting stuck in some sort of drug limbo. Oh, the symbolism!
In 1972, fuelled by his ‘repulsive need to be more than human’, Bowie created his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, a flamboyant and androgynous rock star. ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ is a concept album shedding light on the artificial nature of rock music. The intellectuality, depth and sophistication in the writing still make me feel this to be the seminal Bowie album. It tells the story of Ziggy – from his transformation into a sexually promiscuous, drug abusing rock superstar in ‘Moonage Daydream’ (a song I believe mirrors Bowie’s metamorphosis itself – as if he’s a manifestation of his own art), him becoming a messenger for extraterrestrials in “Starman” (arguably the most influential song in his repertoire), to his eventual demise at the hands of the Starmen in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. Unique and controversial, the character and the album along with a widely acclaimed live performance of the song ‘Starman’ on British television programme Top of the Pops catapulted Bowie to popularity and sold the world on him.
Coming back to present day and the time of writing this article, news has spread of how Bowie, in the knowledge of being diagnosed with liver cancer, kept working and intended the recently released album ‘Blackstar’ to be his swansong. With quite a few lines revolving around his impending death, the album serves as a final goodbye to his listeners, acting as further proof of his indomitable spirit and passion towards his craft. I sit here now, struggling to define the man who unlocked the door to a never-ending road and asked one to be as mad as possible, as deviant as imaginable. I ask – Can one define the man who bore testimony to the fact that if one stands for what one strongly believes in, there remains no need to defend oneself? Should one even need to? If you ask me, all I will say on the matter is that the legacy Bowie left behind is a supernova of infinite eccentricities giving birth to a million stars shooting themselves in every possible direction, leaving behind a trail of dust, that will go on to enlighten the lives of those it touches.
As I type these last few words, my lasting visual is that of Ziggy claiming his stage once again as he so loved to do, amidst a cheering crowd and spotlights. As he walks to the centre stage, the lights go out, casting a hollow darkness and in that moment – the silence becomes louder than the cheers. Suddenly a spotlight is cast upon the man standing tall, arching his brows and giving away a smile from the corner of his lips…and then…Ziggy plays guitar!
I leave you with a Bowie quote which perfectly sums up my feelings towards this moment –
“The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”