Remembering David Bowie, from a very personal perspective
He was such a great songwriter that no amount of bizarre make-up and weird stage acts and costumes could distract from the brilliance of his songs
One of life’s few pleasures, said Kurt Cobain, the tortured, late genius of Nirvana, was listening to song after song from a great album without having to skip tracks.
For me, David Bowie, who died of cancer aged 69, produced at least two such great albums: Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. There are books, movies and bands that define one’s youth. Those two albums definitely helped define mine. Diamond Dogs was my introduction to George Orwell. Its theme of fascist totalitarianism preceded Pink Floyd’s The Wall by half a decade.
Ziggy Stardust was supposed to be Bowie’s alter-ego, a rock star in league with aliens or was an alien himself. His androgyny was part of the sexual liberation in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. But all that is now history; what’s left are the album’s great songs, from Starman to Rock’nRoll Suicide. Somehow, I associate other great hits – Space Oddity, Life on Mars, Changes, The Man who Sold the World – with their theme of extraterrestrials, teenage alienation and space travel – with Ziggy Stardust, though they are from different albums; likewise My Death, an anthem of teenage angst and depression.
The Ziggy period lasted a decade even after he had abandoned the persona and launched into the annoying funk and disco phase. He later stuff left me cold. But as late as 1980, in Ashes to Ashes, he was still singing: “Major Tom’s a junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low.”
People in pop culture usually display more style than substance. Bowie was the opposite. He was such a great songwriter that no amount of bizarre make-up and weird stage acts and costumes could distract from the brilliance of his songs.
READ MORE: David Bowie remembered: a Hong Kong journalist’s fond memory of his 2004 concert and impact on the city
Likewise, he was a handsome man. But he deliberately made himself look ugly, weird and strange. People like to describe Bowie as a chameleon. His constantly changing styles and personas actually seemed rather pointless to me. His songs are hypnotic and strange enough; they can mean many things or nothing. But they stand on their own as works of art.
Last year, I played Ziggy Stardust for my teenage son, and he started his own Bowie exploration. For decades, I had always thought a key line from Changes was: “Turn and face the strange.” But my son disputed that. He said it was actually: “Turn and face the strain.” Come to think of it, it’s even better.