David Robert Jones
Wednesday, January 8, 1947 – Sunday, January 10, 2016.
On Monday, January 11th I was shocked to learned through Facebook about the death at age 69, just two days after his birthday, of British singer David Bowie. I didn’t even know he was ill. Apparently his cancer was a closely held secret as he worked feverishly to complete his final projects. (His last album, Darkstar, was released on his birthday.) I can understand if a person might not know who Bowie was, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 years it seems incredible that you haven’t at least heard his name. He’s that much of a cultural icon.
After suffering a heart attack in the mid-2000s Bowie largely retreated from regular public appearances. He gave practically no interviews and had released very little new material in the last decade. So we all knew he was still around while taking him for granted and paying little attention otherwise. When I saw information about it on Facebook I initially thought it was a hoax, so I checked on Wikipedia and found it was true. No word at that time about what kind of cancer it was, or where exactly he died. (He had homes in England and in New York City.)
I was never a Bowie fan, but I admired and respected him for his achievement. Bowie changed musical styles, fashion, even his name in a relentless exploration of the artistic muse. More than any one sound or song, that shark-like ability to keep moving forward defined him as a cultural icon.
But when I read this in “The business of being Bowie” by Bloomberg Vie columnists Leonid Bershidsky and Mark Gilbert, reprinted in The Japan Times English-language newspaper on Wednesday, January 13, 2016 I was really annoyed:
Bowie’s decision to get into rock music was the result of a conscious search for a way to blend business and creativity. Here’s how he described it in a BBC interview:
“I wanted to be thought of as someone who was very much a trendy person, rather than a trend. I didn’t want to be a trend, I wanted to be the instigator of new ideas. I wanted to turn people on to new ideas and new perspectives. And so I had to govern everything around that. So I pulled myself in, and decided to use the easiest medium to start off with - which was rock and roll - and to add bits and pieces to it over the years, so that by the end of it, I was my own medium.”
What stupid gobbledegook. What he meant was that he was in the business of marketing himself as an image. I understand that. Bowie’s ability to invent characters was what defined him during his career. Everyone projects an image of themselves, but only a few do it as a profession - performers, singers and actors, politicians. He could have said it more succinctly, I thought. I thought of certain musical performers who are/were more heavily into image than others: Bowie; Madonna; Lady Gaga; Miley Cyrus; Michael Jackson. I hate them because they are excessively self-indulgent. Or, my lack of enthusiasm for them is directly proportional to their degree of self-indulgence. I like music. I care about music. When I go to a concern I want the performers to stand still, crank up the volume, and shake me to my core, so that I go home with aching fillings. Like Lemmy and Motorhead, or The Ramones. I don’t want to be served up an effete philosophy of life by dancing pixies on stage. Don’t dance, just blast my ears, man.
Bowie’s ability to invent characters was what defined him during his career.
Don’t dance, just blast my ears, man.
Bowie quite literally seemed from another world in his early years. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a concept album about an alien bisexual rock start. With his makeup and orange hair, Bowie participated fully in an era of excess.
It was a bad month for our heroes. First Motorhead bassist and frontman Lemmy Kilmister died on December 28 of cancer at the age of 70, only four days after his birthday and two days after his diagnosis (or the announcement of his diagnosis, I remain unclear about that). Then English actor Alan Rickman died on Thursday, January 14th also of cancer, also at age 69. We learned about it in Japan on Friday, January 15th, and I learned about it on Facebook first. The bad news continued. Robert Stigwood (January 4th.) Dale Griffin and Glenn Frey (January 17th.) There are many others, of course. Just Google “dead rock stars January 2016” for a whole list. But the people I have mentioned above, musicians or actors, were all giants.