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6 January 2021

Bowie the bellwether

Five years after his death, friends and admirers remember David Bowie not as an otherworldly genius but a magpie who pulled fringe ideas into the mainstream. 

By Stuart Maconie

In the days when the word still conjured something mildewed and tweedy, David Bowie was maybe the first cool curator. “We’d call it curation now,” the writer Hanif Kureishi told me. He went to the same school as Bowie in Bromley; the two became friends when Bowie soundtracked the BBC adaptation of Kureishi’s novel The Buddha Of Suburbia. “He was a smart, curious, self-educated kid who became a collector of enthusiasms. He read a lot. He listened to every kind of music. He knew about theatre and painting. He picked stuff up from everywhere and worked it into his art. He was so creative and alive all the time. It could drive you mad actually.”

On 10 January 2021, David Bowie will have been dead for five years. It seems much more recent, reflecting both the shock that has rippled since the singer passed at age 69, and the artistic vibrations he continues to emanate. Over the past month, for a forthcoming radio documentary, I’ve spoken to those who knew and admired him. Most readings of Bowie’s achievements view him as a shockingly original innovator, a pioneer of glam and electronic music, the man who introduced androgyny and cross-dressing to rock’s burly template. In my view, Bowie was something rather different, yet still rare and dazzling. His true influence was as a restlessly curious, immensely skilled scout or bellwether for ideas at the fringes – be it Kabuki theatre, which informed his stage gear; William Burroughs’s cut-up poetry method, which he worked into his lyrics; or the “krautrock” of Neu! and Can, popularised on Station to Station and Low – that he ushered smoothly and lucratively into the mainstream of popular culture.

The artist and Bowie admirer Grayson Perry agrees. “He plucked things from the world of art and fed it into mass entertainment; things that might have been contemplated in the cultural hotspots in London, but meant nothing 30 miles away in Chelmsford, where I was. Bowie gave permission for us to be different.” In essence, Bowie smuggled the outré into the suburban living room, literally with his infamously androgynous Top of the Pops appearance of July 1972, perhaps the most influential three minutes of music television ever.

[See also: Joni Mitchell: “I know what I want and I’m not afraid to stand up for it”]

He sang the song “Starman” that night. Three years earlier, his first hit had been “Space Oddity”. Later, he would play an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, the universe seemingly occupying the same inspirational psychogeographic space for Bowie that New Jersey did for Bruce Springsteen or Wessex for Thomas Hardy. The astronaut Chris Hadfield (who recorded a performance of “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station in 2013 that was watched by millions) said Bowie felt Hadfield’s “was the most poignant version of his song he’d ever heard. He’d written it when he was barely out of his teens and he’d told me he’d always wanted to fly in space. He got the frame of mind of those early astronauts just right: it was isolating and dangerous and it was a tin can. Major Tom was self-identifying, as astronauts do when you’re up there, not as a human any more but as a spaceman.”

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Kureishi, though, says Bowie wasn’t a fan of science fiction. “He told me that often. He was really interested in the notion of being an alien, because that’s what we were. We were aliens with regard to our parents who’d been through war and hardship, and here we were swanning around Bromley in high heels and lippy.” But Bowie was a voracious, compendious reader. The producer Tony Visconti remembers “volumes of Yeats and Keats in the studio”. On the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth , Bowie had a portable library made for the “300 books or so I like to take on the road”. He distilled 100 favourites into a famous reading list that has itself become the subject of a book.

“Bowie has a complex status as a thinker,” says the uber-fan and comedian David Baddiel. “Fans wanted him to be an intellectual but he was really quite instinctual. Always one step ahead, be it white funk or German electronic music. He was clever but it wasn’t a drily intellectual kind of cleverness.” But Bowie’s art dealer, Beth Greenacre, says that his appreciation of art was scholarly as well as sensual. “He was an academic regarding art. When people saw the 350 paintings in the Sotheby’s auction after his death, they were surprised at the highly intelligent, academic, curated nature of his collection. This was a mind trying to understand himself and the world and specifically his country – be it Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst or Auerbach or Sutherland or Peter Lanyon – through the art he collected.” His online art forum, the first of its kind, championed emerging talents from around the world’s art schools.

[See also: Daniel Lopatin on making music in the “unbelievable psychic peril” of a pandemic]

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A visionary savviness ran through all Bowie’s enterprises. He sold “Bowie bonds”, stocks in his future royalties, to investors and was an early adopter of the internet when most thought it a nerdy gimmick. Ron Roy, with whom he set up BowieNet, an internet provider and forum, says: “He could have been Mark Zuckerberg. We were Facebook way before Facebook. BowieNet completely predicted social media.” Visconti says: “Bowie loved that there were astronauts and philosophers and nuclear scientists in his audience, and he wanted BowieNet to be a space for them to share ideas. Of course, it was mainly fans saying how cool and gorgeous he was.”

But he was eerily prescient about the internet’s emerging power. On Newsnight in 1999, Bowie flummoxed the uncomprehending Jeremy Paxman, saying: “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.” For Baddiel, “it seems in 1999 only David Bowie really understood the internet. Bowie understands that it’s going to change everything, change the way we communicate, change the nature of capitalism, change the world forever. I don’t quite know how he could have known that.”

“He wasn’t a layabout,” says Kureishi, whatever those outraged dads of 1972 might have thought watching Top of the Pops. “During his coke years, he’d work five days and nights straight. He never stopped working, even when he was drunk or stoned.” Ricky Gervais, a fan and friend of Bowie’s, agrees. “He wasn’t Major Tom or Ziggy. He wasn’t some weird alien. He was a normal, funny bloke from London who got really good at what he did. When you turned up at his apartment, the doorman would say, ‘ah, you’re here to see Mr Jones’. And you were. Not David Bowie. Because David Bowie didn’t exist.” 

“David Bowie: Dancing Out in Space” is on BBC Radio 4 and 6 Music on 10 January at 8pm

[See also: The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You: uplifting disco meets celestial trip hop]

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control