By James Cullinan
David Bowie was so timeless that I’d never thought it possible he could die. An artistic chameleon, he was full of surprises, and yet the only act that has truly surprised me since his elaborate alter egos of Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane was his sudden and final disappearance.
Like many, I was blissfully unaware of his 18-month battle with cancer. Three days ago, as he released his 25th studio album, I tweeted (in fluent hashtag) “Bowie, 39 in
#RollingStone Greatest 100 Artists, releases Blackstar today. Dollar Days is classic #DavidBowie talent”. Deep in those notes was the tenor of China Girl.
Scary Monsters, his most successful album represented a time in my life when I was young, energetic, well connected and on the move. Now that Bowie has gone, I feel suddenly stripped of all that individual potential. A chunk of my identity has simply floated away like Major Tom.
When reviewed with hindsight, his albums form a kaleidoscope of sound and vision. He honoured those who impressed him (PinUps 1973) and inspired a myriad of successful artists from Iggy Pop to Boy George. This was his personal magic – Bowie was truly connected, majestically inclusive and forcefully inspirational. He helped Lou Reid produce his legendary album Transformer, just as John Lennon had help him write his first US number one single, Fame.
Bowie’s distinctive unmatched eyes were caused by a permanently dilated left pupil, which he sustained in a school-ground fight (over a girl) with George Underwood. And yet Underwood was the friend that Bowie chose to call on for the artwork of his earlier albums.
Even as an actor, Bowie was eclectic. Fitting for me was how elegantly he blended with the ageless beauty of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon (the new face of L’Oréal) in “The Hunger” while in the same year his energy pulled me through “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” (1983) – a film as long as it was harrowing – thanks to the charisma he exuded as British prisoner of war, Jack Celliers.
He always was a step ahead. Not only did he push artistic boundaries, he helped redefine financial ones. In 1997 he sold (for $55m) the rights to the ensuing ten years of his music royalties in an asset-backed security which was dubbed the Bowie Bond. I’ve an inkling that the fourth track on his near-posthumous album may refer to the aftermath of this particular event.
Frankly, when I listened to his final album, I found it distasteful on first hearing, enchanting on its second, and exquisite from the third, particularly Dollar Days. And that was always the distinction between great music and pop music. Bowie has always produced great music, and in this album the aura of the “Thin White Duke” seemed to have returned.
Even when he left us, it was with a ruse. As his producer Tony Visconti put it “His death was no different from his life – a work of art”. The single, Lazarus, is possibly his own epitaph. In his 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, he’d played every instrument (including the famous guitar riff on Rebel Rebel). And in 2016, David Bowie had even sung his own epitaph.
While Lazarus was arisen from the dead, Bowie was taken from the living. This may reflect the polymorphic stance Bowie held on many subjects, notably his sexuality – where at any given time he could be male, female or androgynous.
The cultural legend of David Bowie will live on, as will his other music, films and iconography. And yet my greatest hope is that something more transcendental will endure: that the presence of the man who influenced so many generations will continue to burnish my own youthful ambitions.
James Cullinan is the author of Flitting – A Beautiful Choice. Flitting, rather than quitting, is the latest freedom plan for smokers who want to reduce the harm of tobacco without having to completely break with cigarettes. It allows you to “keep the best and vape the rest!”