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Being an musical omnivore, I can’t honestly say that any one music artist, or any one music genre is central to who I am. But David Bowie is one of the greats and his place in history is assured.

In secondary school, there was a period when I was making a musical transition. There was a time when I was about to turn my back on my classical music education and turn instead to the exciting new music that was coming out from the left field. Most of us knew David Bowie from his more commercially successful 80s, the big singles from “Let’s Dance” and “Blue Jeans”, the Labyrinth cameo.

But the best part of his career, as any real fan knows, was what he did in the 70s. David Bowie ruled the 70s. One of the first cassettes I bought in this new era, and one of the earliest of a few thousand albums I own, was “ChangesBowie” by David Bowie, from ground floor of a HDB flat in Toa Payoh. It was one of the best places to get cassettes at the time because everything was $2 cheaper. (I had a lot of luck with music that I purchased on Chinese New Years’ eve. In the following years, I bought Suzanne Vega’s first album and Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. ) It was a great compilation and in the following years, even though I swore I wasn’t going to do it, I procured every album from that magical David Bowie period, which had a song from ChangesBowie.

That year was when I was basically listening to all the music I could lay my hands on. I was on fire. The timing was perfect. It was 1992, I just had to wait for all the fantastic music from 1991 to turn up in Singapore. For me, there were 4 magical periods in the rock music era. First was the Elvis period, where we had the early rock and roll stars. It was between 1955 and when Elvis entered the army. The second was the Beatles period, which was from 1962, when they released their first singles, to 1972, when the Rolling Stones released their last great album, “Exile”. The third was punk / post punk, which was from 1977 to 1983.

Then from 1987 to around 2000, there was the last great magical period. In it, all the strands from all the music traditions were coming together. Rap was having its Cambrian explosion, the underground music bands that were slogging away through the mid 80s, notably Sonic Youth, REM and Husker Du were breaking through to a wider audience. House music was being forged in the abandoned warehouses of Detroit and Manchester. 1988 was another “summer of love” when people were dancing away to ecstasy. Then Nirvana would break through and usher in the era of alternative rock. Then there would be the great Britpop boom. And on another track, rap would advance by leaps and bounds. Sampling would be largely stymied by legal issues by 1993, but there would be rap production groups that would always find a way to great fantastic music nonetheless. There were wonderful new fangled things like rave, drum n bass, jungle. It was an age of wonder for electronic music like the Orb, Orbital and Future Sound of London.

So you can imagine, me getting into music around 1992, a freshly minted Grade 8 in piano, a trained ear, and all this candy lying around. My timing was basically perfect.

I’ve always been proud to share the same birthday as two musical legends, Elvis Presley and David Bowie. And in 1992, some of you might find this strange, Elvis Presley was the bigger name of the two. David Bowie’s influence was yet to be felt, whereas Elvis Presley was the guy who popularized rock and roll. At this point in time, there’s no question who’s the bigger name. For me, David Bowie cast such a big shadow over the fourth great period. He was also such a big influence on all the big acts of the 1980s. Your Whams, your Duran Durans, your Chrissie Hyndes. Even the hair metal guys, who took their cue from glam rock.

David Bowie was one of the first guys I got turned on to during the second phase of my music education, and he was also the soundtrack to a few years of my life that I remember with fondness. He was also a big influence on the Britpop scene of the mid 90s, on Suede, on Morrissey. He was also game enough to make a comeback in the mid 90s, and although it was rather hit and miss, he always gave it a go. His mid 90s output would not be much more prominent than the work of some of his fans, but he already more than earned his right to share the stage with them.

For me, David Bowie was rock music’s great postmodernist. Elvis Presley was not well equipped to handle that kind of fame. The Beatles were also completely destroyed by their own fame, by the end of it, although by then they had a legacy nobody else could match.

David Bowie was different. He was knowing, self-aware. His starting point was not music, but theatre. There was always an element of theatre in the music. This was a turnaround from another main development a few years earlier, around 1965, when “rock n roll” morphed into something more self-consciously arty and serious – “rock”. David Bowie adopted the arty seriousness, but then he put in the more arty and self-conscious side. He was always simultaneously performing, and commenting on his own performance.

His choice of his earliest associates was telling. They were Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He was always a fan of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. They were the artier, seamier side of rock music. They had merged rock music with the pop art movement, and also the more dada elements. There was Iggy Pop, the in your face, confrontational performer, who was constantly destroying the fourth wall between the audience and the performer. He was the ultimate fool because of his antics, and he was the ultimate serious performer, because he took his own performance to extremes that nobody else would go to.

David Bowie was the ultimate plastic rock star. He was the classic all-style performer, because he made such a big deal about his image and his outfits. Yet you knew that there was a substance behind all that, because, as he made it very clear, anything you were seeing at any point in time was merely one facet of something that was extremely complex. He created characters, and performed in those characters. He put those characters up front, but at the same time you knew that he would dramatically kill off those characters at any point in time.

He was unknowable because he was always wearing a mask. And he was completely knowable because he wore so many masks that you probably have seen him already from so many different angles. Lou Reed destroyed the innocence of rock music. Iggy Pop destroyed any semblance of decorum in rock music. David Bowie destroyed the idea of rock music as being a permanent, lasting work of art. Everything would be plastic and disposable from now on.

David Bowie bent gender, because he often cross-dressed. He was the vanguard of the glam rock movement, along with T-Rex, the Sweet, Slade and Mott the Hoople. He already had in mind a multifarious rock career by the time he wrote, in one of his early songs, “So I turned myself to face me / But I’ve never caught a glimpse / Of how the others must see the faker / I’m much too fast to take that test” In other words, I don’t give a shit about how anybody – other people or myself – view me, because I’m changing too quickly to ever get nailed down.

David Bowie had a few careers, and any of these things would have made him famous on its own.

  1. Being at the vanguard of the glam rock movement. As John Lennon puts it, it’s rock and roll with lipstick on. Being sexually androgynous and hinting that he’s gay. (Actually, Bowie is probably not gay.)
  2. Being an actor (a fairly competent one, at that)
  3. Being a soul singer. A few of his singles are soul classics – “Fame”, “Young Americans” and “Golden Years”
  4. His Berlin albums, collaborating with Brian Eno, where he created a blend of Teutonic art rock pop. He would probably have to be considered, together with Cluster, Can and Neu! as Krautrock legends, except that he’s not German.
  5. International stardom with his hits, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love”.

David Bowie was not the first to have made a cartoon character of his rock persona. The Beatles did it with Sergeant Pepper, Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour. But there was something really unsettling with what he did with Ziggy Stardust. He was saying that the audience devoured Ziggy Stardust in the end. A performer getting killed by his audience. In other words, the gaze of the audience was also a significant actor in the show.

That made a mark on me. When I was in secondary school, no disrespect to my other ECAs, which were mathematics club and scouts, and which were also great experiences, but my biggest achievement was writing a play and winning the right to have it staged in public. In that play, I also had a bunch of guys become media sensations, and in the end, they were slaughtered. I also likened it to Tiananmen and the Chee Soon Juan saga that was going on at the time – in all three cases, the performer got killed at the end of the show.

On the way, through David Bowie’s imperial period, he dabbled with soul, rock, electronic treatments, art rock. David Bowie did not get killed by the punks, because he was wisely putting out his Berlin trilogy while all the prog rockers got killed. He, after all, was a great promoter of the godfathers of punk – Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Why would they ever want to harm him?

I read a comment about a person passionately defending his legacy and saying that “he almost died for his art”. I don’t think so. When I listen to David Bowie, he’s never anything but a consummate artist. But I always sense that he’s somewhat removed from his work. He wouldn’t feel so passionately about his work that he felt that he had to die, like Kurt Cobain did. He wouldn’t crucify himself on guitar like Bruce Springsteen. Put it this way, he had so many muses, I don’t think that he would have been faithful to any one of them – theatre, fashion, graphic design, music – soul, rock, electronic. He did have his fascist period, but not surprisingly that coincided with his cocaine habit.

There were a few songs where the mask slipped, for me, and not coincidently, they were in the late 70s, when he was just this close to dying. You can’t help being a little emotional at that point. “Heroes” was his most obviously emotional song. And there was also “Word on a Wing”, which was basically a prayer, as well as “Wild is the Wind”, which is a paean to something beautiful dying – although I’m not sure what. “Young Americans” was a very sad song. It’s a rebuke to what he saw as the Americans who live fast and heedless lives when they’re young. But other than those few songs, he just comes across as being very guarded.

David Bowie just comes across as somebody who’s very crafty, very artful, very astute about knowing what’s fashionable or not. The range and scope of his artistic ambition is very remarkable. He understands stagecraft, he’s a good enough songwriter to have penned a few classics. He know that music is not just about the sound. In his own words, he is about the sound and vision. When I checked out the new music “megastore” at MPH Stamford all those years ago, and came across a shelf full of his album covers that I had seen for the first time, it seemed to me that he had never made a bad looking album cover between “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Scary Monsters”. OK, “Low” and “Station to Station” were not his, they were nicked from “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, but they were visually striking. I understood that this guy was a universe unto himself. The visuals deepen the experience of listening to the music. You felt as though you were in a world of his own making.

I see that he has a lot of passionate followers. There’s no doubt that he’s a visionary. But the one thing he is not, he’s not really an emotional person. There’s something icy, something British about him. Something very Capricornian about him. He both loves and shuns the spotlight. From 1969 to 1977, he made an insane amount of music, and he lived so fast that he almost died from drug addiction. Then after his music career slowed down, he admitted that from the late 80s onwards, he didn’t give a shit about music anymore. He liked to play second fiddle to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and many times he just likes being a regular dude – inasmuch as he is capable of being a regular dude. Personally, this is very easy to explain. David Bowie is basically an alien. He isn’t pretending to be an alien, he isn’t affecting anything. He IS an alien. He couldn’t not stand out from the crowd, even if he tried. And therefore a person like that would naturally cherish whatever opportunity there is to blend into the background. But he can’t do that. He tried it once, with Tin Machine. He let somebody else be the guitar god, and padded it up with the two guys who did the bam-bam-bam intro to “Lust For Life”. It got nowhere, because David Bowie isn’t David Bowie if he’s not dressed in something freakish and garish.

 

When I first heard of David Bowie’s death, I thought it was a hoax. The timing was too clever: he had just released the second album of his comeback, BlackStar, a few days ago. But I suppose, he was probably holding on to life until the very end making sure that he died after the album was released on his birthday. Like Lee Kuan Yew, who made sure that he died on Singapore’s 50th jubilee. I had to check a few sources to make sure that he was really dead. Why?

In 1972, after the end of his Ziggy Stardust tour, he killed off the band on stage. He told a live audience that “this is the last show we’ll ever do”. But what he meant was he was breaking up the band, not that he was retiring, although some people might have assumed that.

He killed off Major Tom. He went through all these personas, and then dumped them after he was done with them. The man who sold the world – dead. Aladdin Sane – dead. Diamond Dog – dead. Plastic soul / Thin White Duke – dead.

Regarding the Thin White Duke, at the time when he was making “Station to Station”, he was in the grip of a very very serious drug problem, and he probably came close to dying that year. (Needless to say, he’d still be a legend if he did die in 1976.)

Then he moved from Southern California to Berlin for rehab, and made his celebrated Berlin trilogy. His career finally had a slump after “Modern Love”, and there was a series of mediocre albums until a mini revival around 1995 to 2003, when he made “Reality”, and stayed quiet for 10 years.

So David Bowie had died many many times before. How were we to know that this time, it’s real?

Anyway, that was a very sketchy overview of his musical career. What I just said was probably written many other places before, and better.

 

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