David Bowie: A Heathen
When it comes to David Bowie, the favourite phrase of every wannabe music journalist on this planet is the bland cliché ‘the chameleon of rock and roll’. However, while chameleons adapt to their surroundings, Bowie does the exact opposite. The young artist (literally, the man has a degree in visual arts) from London did everything but adapt. From his breakthrough single Space Oddity up to the latest instalment Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), Bowie is, in essence, edgy, afraid and concentrated on surviving. Never have I heard a voice more troubled, or read a lyric or prose more anxious than Bowie’s writings. Twenty four albums as a solo recording artist, and Bowie is still as alien as he was on Space Oddity.
And make no mistake, Bowie is an alien. I’m not saying that he wasn’t conceived on this planet, but his mindset is obviously not of this Earth. In case you’re wondering what the hell I am talking about, let’s think about it. Together. There is a certain distance between him and the rest of humanity. It’s in his lyrics, in his voice, in the way he changes his music, it’s in the way he chooses his inspiration.
Even though his music is almost all the time dark in one form or another, Bowie is far from being constantly bleak. For the love of everything that is unholy, he told us to put on the red shoes and dance the blues. Under the serious moonlight. So how exactly is Bowie a troubled alien? Even in the earliest lyrics such as The Bewlay Brothers or The Man Who Sold The World (no, young punk reading this, Kurt didn’t write that), you could hear a young distant voice that kind of read through all of humanity. Of course Bowie didn’t know everything about life since the very beginning of his career, but his attitude and his angst, driven by absolutely everything that surrounded him, made him superior in comparison to any other artist of that time (and this time as well).
In case some of you are wondering what I am ranting about while talking about a rock musician, let me tell you something - any form of cultural or artistic expression changes things. Bowie changed the important people. Bowie’s philosophy that was ahead of its time and his intelligent lyrics resonated with the ones who go forward. Bowie changed things that matter. And in a way, he is still changing them. New generations are discovering old Dame’s music and, you know, music gets to them. I saw a Hungarian Bowie tribute band last year (don’t ask), and at the very end of their gig (somewhere after midnight), in the packed crowd, I noticed an eight year old kid, and on the other side of the venue, a man who was at least 70 raising his fist in the air while the band was playing Heroes. I now figure it’s like a good book – it equally affects everyone, regardless of age. People have forgotten that music is also a form art, and its modern forms are just a step in its evolution.
Since the early seventies, Bowie has been both Albert Camus and Meursault, both Kafka and Josef K, he has been both Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray. Bowie is the character and the author simultaneously. Bowie is an anti-hero, an imaginary friend of every outcast, a silent authority. It seems that this musician, this rock star has seen everything since its beginning. David Bowie stays a willing exile from our society, but somehow keeps being a vital ingredient of it. He managed that by having that unique skill of expression, his own voice, still ahead of our time.
I remember being in my late teens, already all grown up and adult, when I heard the song Slow Burn (released on the 2002 album Heathen, considered by many his last great album) and there was that lyric that scared me (or scarred me, ‘tis the same) - Hark, who are we/so small in times such as these? It still gives me the creeps. It kind of goes beyond music. It’s basic, a bit pompous and dramatic, but never overblown. Although far from being the most important in the Duke’s opus, the album is actually the one that finally defined him - David Bowie is a fragile but persistent, intimidated but courageous man who refuses to believe in any doctrine human race has come up with. Bowie is a heathen.
If a man such as Bowie can be and is afraid, what are we to do? Panic? But then again, we may have only five years left of sighing.