This is going to be, as it turns out, a David Bowie memorial without very much David Bowie in it.
I was not a Bowie “fan” as such. I was aware of him, sure; but I grew up during the Let’s-Dance/Modern-Love/Tin-Machine era, when he was known mainly for duets with Mick Jagger and coffee commercials. I may have actually heard Peter Schilling’s song about Major Tom before I heard Space Oddity. I know, to my shame, that I heard Vanilla Ice before I heard Under Pressure. I didn’t even see Labyrinth.
But he was in the ether enough that even then, I understood he was something of a Rock Elder Statesman, a titan of a pioneer and a trailblazer. Unusual and innovative enough to sing about spacemen and suffragettes; confident enough to wear makeup and tight pants one minute and elegant linen suits the next just because. “In” enough to duet with someone as admittedly hokey as Bing Crosby on a Christmas song and have it not be seen as weird. Or, maybe have people fall for it because of the depth of its weirdness. Drop Bowie’s name and you had cred, and a lot of doors opened for you.
And I did get my Bowie education, in time – I finally did hear him and Freddie Mercury properly, and laughingly agreed when some pop-culture show referred to “Under Pressure” as “Totally. Freaking. Transcendent.” I finally heard the whole of “Space Oddity”, I heard Heroes and Fame and Young Americans. I recognized the line from “Changes” when someone quoted it in my high school yearbook. But as for being a fan….I can’t honestly call myself one the same way others can. He always seemed strangely out of reach – he flew so high and stood so far outside the pale that ultimately I was a little too afraid to follow, and retreated to the comparatively safer musical territory of Talking Heads or post-Genesis Peter Gabriel. Oddballs, but….accessible ones.
I respected him, though, absolutely. And so that is why this morning, when I glanced at the BBC news page upon waking, I shouted “What?” when I saw the news of his death; it is also why I dipped into iTunes at work to rectify my not having Bowie on my iTunes library (“you’re kidding me, I don’t have Heroes? Good Lord….”), and it is why I stopped into my local bar on the way home tonight, hoping to hear their in-house radio tuned to an all-Bowie playlist.
And I didn’t. What I heard, as I sat there with my one cocktail, were songs by Simple Minds and Tears for Fears and The Cure and Talking Heads. Even when a rather drunk woman came up started talking to me and insisted that I sing something for her, I went with my usual fallback of Dusty Springfield rather than busting out “Space Oddity” or something. After my one drink I paid up and went home.
But I realized something as I was paying up. Each and every one of those other artists I heard owed their career to Bowie in a way – simply because there was now room for them. He had flown so high in his tincan and pushed the landscape so far, there was now room for the Scottish New-Wave dreaminess of Simple Minds, room for Roland Orzabal to do orchestral pop songs about primal scream therapy, for Robert Smith to dress in gothic drag and sing about love on Friday and Peter Gabriel to sing about monkeys and David Byrne to set Dada poems to music. There was even room for German and Dutch one-hit wonders about post-apocalyptic fantasies or Mozart, or even synth-pop covers of Gerswhin.
I didn’t get to hear much of Bowie’s music tonight, and I didn’t explore much of it while he was alive. But I have lived in a world he created and paved the way for, and that is a fine and fortunate thing.