As I start typing this, it is January the 12th, 2016.
Yesterday the death was announced of David Bowie, aged 69, from cancer.
There are probably people running blogs at this time who feel they can let the death of this pop artist pass without comment. The Legion of Andy is not among them.
The Legion does not propose to go over the facts of Bowie’s life or, in so far as we know them, of his death. Other sources of information are available.
This will be a personal reflection, and it will focus on three things.
Firstly, a selection of today’s British newspapers, scanned from the papers themselves. Clicking on these should take you to a larger version.
The Guardian has a truly beautiful image on its front page—Bowie was a bit photogenic, wasn’t he?—and an anxious looking lad insane on its special supplement. (Did these people really put together their pages within a day of getting the news?)
The Grauniad wasn’t the only one to give Bowie all or most of its front page:
But only Rupert Murdoch’s Times thought him worthy of both front and back:
Two papers with similarly “end of the spectrum” political outlooks decided the NHS junior doctors’ strike was worthy of the same or more attention:
The Morning Star did go to town—Brixton town— on pages 2 and 3:
The legion almost regrets not adding the Sun and the Mail to pile, but of course, there are limits. Finally then, another paper that almost didn’t get bought, but look… it tried so hard! It managed to find a picture of the Dame looking almost chubby, and it goes for a quote from the new song Lazarus. (Next Monday’s headline: Walking Is Cause Of Most Back Pain.)
And speaking of Lazarus, and its really rather good video (which can be seen here:
The Legion does not have a huge social media presence—a Twitter feed and a Facebook, um… thing. Someone there posted a link to the video for Lazarus on its release day, January the 7th. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have seen it before Bowie’s death. We hadn’t heard the single itself before then, though it had been out for a few weeks.
As it was, we were able to experience Lazarus—if only that once—without knowing how near to death Bowie was. This feels, rather obscurely, like a great privilege, and to whomever posted the link to the video… thanks. The video remains unwatched since. The time will come. But not just yet.
What first impressions did the Lazarus video make, then? In that state of innocence, as it were, before realising its real implications?
Its imagery of ageing, illness and death struck more forcefully than the song itself. The music was certainly impressive, and seemed worth further listening.
Bowie’s singing, if lacking some of its former power, appeared passionate, and his performance compelling. The lyric at first hearing seemed somewhat slight, on the trite side even. It made little impact in itself. Clearly it requires more thoughtful attention in light of what we now know.
It has helpfully provided the headline writers of at least one newspaper with a handy quote, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” That opening line had seemed to be only a piece of curious irony. In heaven? While lying in a hospital-type bed, apparently in a state of some distress?
Was this an allegory for life in the autumn of ones years?
Bowie certainly looked old. Not a whole lot older than many other 69-year-olds, perhaps. Was it simply the fact that he had not tried to hide the ageing process with hair dye and make-up that came as something of a surprise? This was a level of honesty not often seen in pop stars. Did he want, perhaps, to communicate very directly with his audience?
Again, a sense of irony there. David Bowie had of course for much of his career been the epitome of the pop chameleon, arguably hiding himself behind a series of artfully created personas. The likelihood was that this was in fact merely the latest of those.
In retrospect, 2013’s single Where Are We Now?—released as a surprise move on his birthday, January the 8th—and the album which followed perhaps foreshadowed this new openness to some extent. Certainly, they established Bowie’s ability to astonish the world by unleashing something which had been kept a secret until the last minute.
But being honest about his age didn’t mean that Bowie was going to be straightforward with us. The Lazarus video raised more intriguing questions than it provided easy answers. Why was Bowie lying in a hospital bed? What’s with the skull in the background? This appeared to be a song, a video and a man confronting his own mortality.
In the context of David Bowie, five days ago, “confronting mortality” could simply have meant: “69-year-old artiste, retired from live performance about ten years ago after heart attack, finds appropriate subject matter for new work.”
The bandaged eye area, and the odd metal objects stuck over each eye—blinkers? Or viewing aids for the visually impaired? Is it relevant that when he stands up and perhaps has some kind of fit, Bowie has lost the bandages and the (?)blinkers?
The wardrobe was also a bit of a mystery. Being English, and of a certain age, The Legion naturally tends to associate people emerging from wardrobes with Narnia. This didn’t seem to help with understanding Lazarus. Bowie came out of the sexuality closet a long time ago. This seemed as if it might just possibly be relevant, but if so, why was he getting back into it at the end of the song?
On hearing of Bowie’s actual death, only three or four days later, the wardrobe made a lot more sense—something like the venerable Bede’s well-known parable about the sparrow flying through the King’s hall. This modern translation of the lines from his Ecclesiastical History of England tells the tale. It is around the year 625 A.D. and Edwin, the pagan Saxon king of Northumbria, is discussing with his advisors whether they should all convert to Christianity.
Another of the king’s chief men… added thereafter: “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter… while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all…”
Or, to put it another way, we enter this world from some mysterious unknown place, live here for a short time—finding it, if we are lucky, fairly comfortable—then go back to the Other Place.
The Legion is reminded, too, that the author of the Narnia books was the very Christian C.S. Lewis, and that his books have been seen as Christian parables for young readers.
David Bowie’s relationship with Christianity in his latter years is not something the Legion knows anything about. But we recall, wincing still, his recitation of the Lord’s Prayer onstage at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. At the time it seemed in very poor taste to the staunchly secularist Legion, and the years have not mellowed its impact. Bowie had, in earlier times, seemed almost emblematic of a world leaving behind it religious past and facing reality with fewer illusions. How little we know our pop icons, eh? And this is hardly the place to reflect on whether our illusion that we do know them is in part fulfilling the same urges that led our ancestors to believe in the gods.
On balance, it is more likely that Bowie believed he had a chance of ending up in a Christian heaven than in Narnia.
The Legion does not wish to seem to be taking David Bowie less than seriously. On the contrary, let us nail our colours to the mast and say: he is one of the few makers of “pop” or “rock” music who does deserve to be taken seriously. A giant, a titan. Often—how very often!—imitated, and never (at least by his imitators) equalled. And seldom by any of the others.
Was he a “genius”? Well, if that word is to have any residual meaning when applied to the likes of Albert Einstein, perhaps not. Bowie was after all only a crafter of pop music. But it’s undeniable that few have made pop music so well.
Bowie certainly had a genius, in that slightly different sense of the word, when it came to his chosen craft. A genius, appropriately enough for the pop chameleon he was, which is hard to pin down. It was more than a genius for self-promotion, though he had that. He had a way with a tune and a lyric. His voice, at its peak, was a powerful instrument which he used well. Likewise he made the best of his abilities on instruments such as the saxophone and the guitar, though he was the first to admit they were fairly basic. Bowie should arguably have had more confidence in his instrumental talents. He left us regrettably little of his playing to enjoy. There should have been more.
But then, part of his genius lay in finding more talented musicians with whom to collaborate. Producers too. Assembling the right team to craft the settings for his songs was a skill which Bowie had in spades. And that is not to mention the designers and artists of record sleeves, costumes, stage sets…
He was a songwriter of a rare talent, who more than most was a barometer of his age to boot. Many performers have changed tack in their music, their appearance, their stage show, often quite radically, usually to fit in better to changing times. Bowie did his fair share of that, but at his best he challenged the times—the pop times, at least—to change with him.
You can read plenty of that stuff elsewhere. The Legion of Andy is here to give you a personal perspective. Though there are probably already far too many of those around already as well.
Which brings us to our third thing.
When the news broke of Bowie’s death, many in the Twitterverse and Facebookworld let their friends and followers know about their favourite Bowie songs. Often they could not stop at one, which is fully understandable. The Legion, if pushed, could not hope to stop at twenty.
The first album to get played at Legion HQ was Aladdin Sane, an old favourite to be sure, but also handily at the top of the iPod’s alphabetical listing. Next we turned to Diamond Dogs, a record of which we once firmly opined that it seemed possible to formulate an argument that it might perhaps be considered to be in some ways Bowie’s best—on certain days of the week, at least.
The Legion has never liked playing the favourites game. Too aware perhaps that moods change and what was top of the pile yesterday may not be today’s choice. Too indecisive, some might say.
In fact, The Legion has in the last couple of days, inevitably, found its whole long relationship with Bowie sauntering, if not flashing, before its eyes. This had to include the uncomfortable fact—awkward to relate right now, anyway—that we had not had much of a relationship with his music since 1983’s Let’s Dance album.
The love affair had been losing its fizz anyway, since the second and third albums in the Berlin trilogy had seemed to lack the excitement of 1977’s Low. They provided a couple of great singles, admittedly, and Fripp & Eno were still, incontrovertibly, Fripp & Eno.
Unfashionably, the Legion was also unconvinced by most of Scary Monsters, though it had its memorable moments. Also some forgettable half-hours.
So it turned out that as Bowie morphed into a worldwide stadium-filling superstar he became less interesting to many of us who had dug his earlier stuff so much. No real surprise there.
But oh, those glory years! Looking back, they seem so few. For The Legion, 1973—when we also took on board Bowie’s material from 1970 onwards—to 1977. But never mind the width, feel the quality! Those few years embraced Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low… did I miss any out? A live album or two? Perhaps they weren’t in quite that order…? Who cares!
Anyway, we have to face the facts. For most of us, the golden years of Pop cannot be defined by some arbitrary decade on the calendar. The Golden Age wasn’t the 50s, the 60s or even the 70s. It was the age when—and for a while after—you discovered Pop for yourself, when you first made that connection with The Music. Somewhere between 12 and 15 probably. (Though aren’t the kids growing up fast these days?)
Thinking about David Bowie takes me right back there.
Pa legion had been a jazz fan in his heady (?) youth. Deceased junkie saxophonist Charlie Parker was a favourite with Pa, though illicit drugs probably didn’t feature much in his own student life. He did though have one university pal who wore something closely akin to a Zoot Suit. In his later years it was Charlie Parker that Pa stuck with.
Ma liked slushy old ballads like “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and the occasional gin & tonic. The songs, it must be said, were consumed even more rarely than the G&Ts. It was not one of those households that resounded constantly with merry tunes.
Ma and Pa Legion had three children, born between 1958 and 1962, and they were terrified that the 60s were going to get them. They seem to have determined that Pop Music was the gateway drug to all the other undesirable ones including promiscuity. So they did their best to insulate us three from the horrors of Pop. TV’s Top of the Pops was firmly banned, though once accidentally glimpsed. Not, alas, that magic Starman moment—which even if seen, would probably not have been grokked—just a tiny portion of Brown Sugar (in black & white).
Once the young Legion saw The Monkees on a friend’s TV. Micky Dolenz sang Going Down. The Legion didn’t get it. Why was this bloke singing in the middle of the story?
During our family’s year in Canada, something which the Legion later found out was called Big Yellow Taxi drifted over from the neighbour’s garden on more than one summer’s afternoon. So did Petula Clark’s Downtown. The Legion knew why downtown was a special place, at least in London, Ontario. You could cycle there, and it had the best spinner racks of comics.
But it wasn’t until the family moved back to England that the Devil’s Music really started to worm its way into the young Legion’s brain. The start of Big School meant travelling on the school bus. For a few years it was a safe, neutral zone. But then we got a new driver. And some mornings he played BBC Radio One. Pop music was still firmly excluded from home, and not part of the Legion’s day-to-day mental landscape at all. But the school bus was now a Danger Zone. The siren was blaring. And more importantly, singing.
Well, as Bowie was later going to put it:
There’s gonna be sirens, trying to wake up tomorrow… here they come!
Three singles from that time, that bus, called strongly enough that they will be forgotten only in the last stages of senility. Freda Payne’s Band Of Gold can’t have been a current chart hit. But there it was, and here it still is. So is Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The Legion may wish that it wasn’t, but this isn’t a matter of choice.
And then there is Sorrow, a 1973 single by David Bowie.
A very few times, as our buses passed like ships in the morning, The Legion would glimpse a very special girl travelling the other way, towards her own school, back in The Legion’s home town. This girl was the sister of a schoolfriend, and the object of a hopeless crush. She had long blonde hair and eyes of blue.
When Sorrow came on the radio, she and her bus and her hair were nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t the point.
The Legion was a sentimental little wanker.
Not long after that, Ma Legion’s kitchen radio was being tuned to a pop station while she was out, and back to Radio 4 before she got back. Most of the music it played seemed more pap than pop, but one day it gave the special gift of Bryan Ferry’s version of These Foolish Things, and something in The Legion went ping. A summer job meant a little of one’s very own money in one’s pocket, and there was this thing newly-discovered thing called a record shop.
Once Ferry’s LP of the same name was in the house, opposition crumbled. It was 1974. High time for the 60s to arrive in that corner of suburbia.
Freda Payne became a one-hit wonder in the Legion’s personal hit parade. Elton soon became a bit of bore.
Bowie didn’t, nor did Ferry and his band Roxy Music. They were entry drugs alright. Before long, Ma & Pa Legion had to put up with unimaginable horrors within their previously impregnable walls.
Lou Reed! The Velvet Undergound!
Matching Mole, for fuck’s sake!!
Twenty-five or so years later, The Legion was sitting around with a couple of friends in a London flat. Three very different people, unlikely to find a large overlap in the Venn diagram of musical taste. The CD we could agree to put on was Hunky Dory. And all three of us sang along and we all knew most of the words to most of the songs. And we were only drinking tea. Or that last part might be made up.
And about Diamond Dogs… if there is a favourite Bowie moment round these parts, it might be the first few tracks on that album. Most of what used to be quaintly known as “Side One.” (The Legion forgets why.) The last track on that side is the mighty single, Rebel Rebel. But it’s the stuff that precedes it that The Legion really took to its teenage heart and keeps there to this day.
Future Legend/Diamond Dogs describes what is ostensibly a New York setting, but its dystopian future may also be a fantasy—no kidding?!—and the vibe is very J.G. Ballard. Science Fiction which is about us here and now, Earth is the alien planet etc.. Which means it’s a metaphor for life in the big city, maybe, which means for Bromley boy David Bowie and for the Legion of Andy, it is really about London. Just as much, or as little, as Ziggy Stardust was, with that red phone box on the cover.
Side Two of Diamond Dogs is the remnants of a planned adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, so that’s another London link if you want or need one.
Which, and this is the point really, means that what follows the title track, Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)—which plays as one song—can be about London too. And this is the nasty throbbing heart of the record.
It seems to be about politicians, cocaine and sleaze; older men and rent boys and the various dives where their worlds meet. Think Times Square before it was cleaned up if you like. But to The Legion its territory is around Piccadilly Circus in London, and is rooted in the 1970s and yet timeless.
It will always be there because it is a mythical place. This song looked back to an old Soho that was already a legend, and also echoed forward to the songs of Morrissey and the Smiths, Piccadilly Palare and Manchester-so-much-to-answer-for. Mostly though it looked around, as the young David Bowie must have looked for himself while trying to break into the Soho-based music biz. We suburban teenagers of the mid 70s heard terrible, alluring tales and looked on at “the Dilly” from safely outside—mostly.
The Legion and his pals played safely at the game of Sleaze in the unwilds of Buckinghamshire, occasionally slumming it in the real centre of things, but never after dark. Not ‘til were a bit more grown up, anyway, and if not exactly streetwise, mixed in at least with a punky gang of locals, a degree of safety in numbers.
A lot of others were not so lucky, and if you think the story of authority figures and cocaine and sleaze is tucked away in the past, what planet have you been living on?
Anyway, Elton John sang about some of this stuff in another guy’s words: “You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough… back to the howling old owl in the woods, hunting the horny-backed toad…” By no means a terrible song, but a somewhat mundane lyric, and a melody that’s eager to please, plonked out on Reg’s old Joanna. And very much about walking way from it all, to a life of imagined bucolic bliss, innocence regained. Yeah, right.
Whereas Bowie sang lines wot he wrote himself, while his own noisy electric guitar and squalling sax misbehaved something chronic.
I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate… we’ll pretend we’re walking home because your future’s at stake. My set is amazing, it even smells like a street… there’s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friends…
Having so much fun with the poisonous people, spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up. Some make you sing and some make you scream, one makes you wish that you’d never been seen. But there’s a shop on the corner selling papier maché, making bullet-proof faces… Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay…
Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain? Do you think that your face looks the same? Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted. It’s a street with a deal, and a taste… it’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you…
And though one has to admit there’s a lot more to London than that, Bowie certainly had his finger on one of its pulses there.
He was too ambitious and too talented to be confined by any one city, nation or continent. He had to conquer the USA and Europe too, and tomorrow the world. And no-one could keep up the passionate intensity of early Bowie for a whole lifetime—unless it was quite a short one, like those of some other hard-living rockers.
Bowie may have been living on borrowed time since his heart problem of 2004, but really it is nigh on a miracle that he didn’t succumb years before that, even. The Legion is glad that he had a good few calmer years in what seems to have been a happy place.
And we’re glad he had a late resurgence of music-making. If we couldn’t be as appreciative as some were of his 2013 album The Next Day, we are at least looking forward to making the acquaintance of Blackstar. It might be a record to fall in love with, it might not. But it’s evidently a brave, ambitious piece of work by a man still finding interesting collaborators, and with something big on his mind.
But of course, the Legion of Andy knows it doesn’t matter a tiny wee damn what The Legion of Andy thinks about all this. What does matter, we consider, is that a man who deserved to be appreciated on a massive scale died knowing that his lifetime of unique art was indeed loved by a huge audience.
And knowing that the recent work—which, sick as he was, must have cost him dearly—was going to intrigue and delight and probably annoy a heckuva lot of people.
Over all, not a bad legacy. And not one to have escaped the notice of the British newspapers, which is where we came in.
And on which, a final thought. When The Legion was first listening to Bowie in 1974, many of these papers—certainly the more upmarket ones—would not even have been reviewing rock and pop records on their inside pages, let alone giving a dead pop star major front page coverage. Was it the Times or the Telegraph that said, around that time, “When rock musicians start making art, we will put them on our arts pages,” or words to that effect?
To young people today, it may just be part of the New Normal. To a 70s kiddie from the suburbs it’s a case of ch-ch-ch-changes… turn and face the strange.
Or: welcome the world that David Bowie made.
Well, maybe he didn’t really, but we’re allowed to say that.
Just for one day.