Prince, Bowie, Jackson – the idols of my youth who helped me find my way

Peter Kammerer reflects on three beloved stars who took weirdness into the mainstream and gave an outsider like him a sense of belonging

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 4:37pm

Three names invariably top lists of the most influential classical music composers of all time: Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. I wonder whether, in their day, they were as weird and freaky as the rock and pop trio who dominated the years of my teens and 20s: David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince?

Certainly, for creativity, they were a match on every count. But could Mozart dance like Michael, was Beethoven considered as funky as Prince, did Brahms have the glam of David? Centuries from now, will these icons of my youthful years even still be listened to?

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They are all gone now, Bowie and Prince this year within four months of each other. They died too young, but their creative high points had passed a generation ago.

Their legacy is in dozens of albums and scores of songs that can be listened to over and over, making us feel good, contemplative or just nostalgic. With Prince’s passing last Thursday, debate has started as to which was the bigger musical genius; my vote is for Bowie, my sons’ choice is Jackson, but it all depends on definition.

Jackson outstrips all in sales, making him the undisputed king of pop. An argument goes that he also had the greatest cultural impact through his dance and videos. But he was not as ever-changing or creative in his music as either Bowie or Prince.

Without doubt, Prince was the most prolific – he is believed to have left a vault of more than 1,000 unreleased tracks.

Research shows that, for the majority of us, musical tastes are formed in the early teens. By our 20s, the playlist of our life has been all but set in stone and there it will stay, a favourite to our dying day.

A song will be added here and there with time, but we will keep coming back to those original songs for comfort and inspiration.

My MP3 playlist certainly proves that, with a healthy dose of Bowie, a smattering of Prince, a single entry from Jackson, who was always too pop for my liking.

David Bowie

Each of their songs takes me back to a place and time. As a kid with severe eye problems and Coke bottle glasses, I was usually on the fringe, always apart from the contact sports and in with the nerdy crowd of science fiction, chess and computers.

Bowie and Prince, their gender-neutral personas and ever-changing musical styles, were endearing for an outsider like me.

Hong Kong is a perfect place for such a person and no matter how comfortable I feel with my surroundings, I am only too aware that with my blindness, white cane, 190cm height and complexion, I remain the odd one out. I am doubly reminded each time the Bowie songs Rebel, Rebel, Starman or Life on Mars or Prince’s 1999, Raspberry Beret or Alphabet Street play.

Of the three, I only saw Bowie in concert – in Brisbane in 1978, when his persona was that of the downcast Berlin wanderer of his Low/Heroes era. The Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke characters were in his past and minimalist electronic landscapes filled the neon strip-lit stage.

I learned of Prince the first time at college in 1980, when a pile of vinyl records arrived at the student union office. One album had an unusually flamboyant cover: a bare-chested man and the title Prince in purple letters. This was not rock or pop as I knew it, but the music it contained was in the same innovative vein as that of Bowie and I was an instant convert.

Bowie, Jackson and Prince are worlds apart from the staid exactitude of orchestral music. All three are as genius in their own way as the greats of that genre, though.

Bowie and Prince in particular took popular music in a direction that suited an introvert like me, and for that I am eternally grateful. Through their music, concerts and videos, they took weirdness into the mainstream.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post