Bowing down to Bowie

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Bowing down to Bowie

Boundary-breaking musician, songwriter, artist, family man. Find out who the real David Bowie was - and why his recent death is a loss for us all.

By Vir Sanghvi

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Published: Thu 18 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 26 Feb 2016, 8:15 AM

My biggest problem, when the news of David Bowie's death came to light, was having to explain to anyone who was not of my generation why Bowie had been such a big deal. Younger people knew Bob Dylan, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but had no idea why Bowie was that significant. Many even believed that Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who died a little after Bowie, was a bigger deal.
When I said that I reckoned Elvis was the most influential artist of the 50s, Bob Dylan and The Beatles shared that honour in the 60s, and that David Bowie was easily the most significant rock star of the 70s, I was regarded with scarcely concealed contempt.
Bowie? Really? How? Why?
If you have read any of the obituaries that appeared when he died, you will know the broad outlines of his life. He was born David Jones, wanted to be an actor, found early success as a singer with Space Oddity ("Ground ?control to Major Tom..") and then vanished. He reappeared around 1972, and transformed rock and the way in which rock stars behaved.
Did he really? Yes, he did. Let me count the ways.
If you have ever seen footage of rock concerts from the 60s, then you will know that most stars just stood there and sang or played. Some bands, like The Who, allowed for a few stunts. Roger Daltrey would swing his mike and Pete Townshend would use a windmill gesture while playing the guitar. Only Mick Jagger danced around on stage, imitating Tina Turner. But this only earned him the derision of his contemporaries. "I think Mick's a joke frankly, with all that dancing," John Lennon sneered in his famous Rolling Stone interview.
Bowie, on the other hand, understood the stage. He'd worked with Lindsay Kemp Theatre Company and he knew how to create a spectacle. His shows were pure theatre; they changed the way how concerts were staged.
Then, there was the persona. Instead of going with convention, Bowie always sought to break the mould - he was notorious for shocking audiences. The establishment reacted with horror, but Bowie could not be stopped.
Next, was style. Bowie was the first rock star to understand fashion. During his first phase of superstardom (1972-75), he used Kansai Yamamoto, a Japanese designer who later became world-famous. His style of stage dressing, his haircuts and personal style influenced many other rock stars after him. Later, Bowie changed his look every three years or so, creating new personas like the Thin White Duke with new wardrobes. It was he who taught stars they had to reinvent themselves.
Then, there was the music. Bowie started out as a glitter-era, teen-fan pop star. But anyone who listened to his music knew his influences were vast. He was as much at home with Jacques Brel (whose song Amsterdam he covered), as he was with Dylan-style lyrics (an early song was called Song For Bob Dylan); after he became close to Jagger, he wrote the Stones-like Rebel Rebel whose riff beat anything Keith Richards could come up with during that period.
In 1974-75, he moved into "plastic soul", taking on the Philadelphia sound of that era, making music that was totally different. Then, he retreated to Berlin and created electronic albums that influenced many British bands in the 80s (his masterpiece Heroes dates from that period). Just as the world was going electronic, he flew off to New York to release his most commercially successful album Let's Dance, probably the ultimate dance album. Hardly had we got used to Dancing Bowie when he formed a rock band, Tin Machine, and toured with it (not a musical high spot, I think).
And so it went, till he finally decided he wanted to spend a quiet life with his second wife Iman and his daughter in a New York apartment. People who met him during that phase said they had difficultly reconciling the private family man with Bowie the star.
He released two well-received albums over the last few years, one just before he died of cancer. But his health prevented him from touring then.
Why do I rate him so highly? Well, the music speaks for itself. He was a master of genres, from pop to rock to torch songs to electronic tones to dance music. The moment he discovered a genre, he changed the way it was perceived and opened the door for others.
But mostly, I admire him for his imagination and courage. He pushed every boundary, broke every rule; he merged art, fashion, theatre and rock into a seamless whole. And unlike, say, his old pal Mick Jagger, who is now just an older version of his 70s self or Paul McCartney who is a juke box, he was never the same. 

David Bowie was famous for having 'alien eyes' that were believed to be of different colours - one blue and one brown. However, both his eyes were blue, but a childhood accident permanently dilated his right pupil, giving it a darker appearance
Bowie's 2013 album, The Next Day, was so secret, even his PR team didn't know about it.
Bowie played a number of instruments including the saxophone, the guitar and the piano. In fact, he plays almost every instrument on Diamond Dogs - including the guitar riff on Rebel Rebel.
His single Space Oddity was played by the BBC to cover the footage of the 1969 moon landing. This was when Bowie was just starting out, and the song went on to become his first UK #1 years later.
Bowie was offered a knighthood from the Queen in 2003 - and turned it down. This is not surprising; in 2000, he was offered a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and turned that down as well, stating he 'didn't know what to do with it'

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