A year ago, when David Bowie died, I sent the following email to my BFF, who somehow had managed to not be exposed to the wonder that was His Magnificent Starmanity before then.
It’s very much an intro to my own relationship with Bowie’s works, rather than a definitive guide, but I thought I’d republish it here on the anniversary of his death, in case you too are looking for somewhere to start with his extensive catalogue.
A Brief Introduction To Bowie
You might want to pour a glass of wine or make a cup of tea, it might take a while…
One of the reasons Bowie is so hard to introduce is because his work spanned so many different areas, and also because different people like him for different reasons. If you’re not a fan of one Bowie album, you’ll probably love another. But this is a guide to what I love about him the most.
Bowie first appeared on the cultural scene in 1966, the same year the first Star Trek episode aired and England won the world cup. It was also the year Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were tried and sentenced for the Moors Murders, the Beatles played their final concert, and both Helena Bonham Carter and Tamsin Greig were born.
In other words, it was a pretty busy year, and Bowie’s first album isn’t one most people remember. I quite like it, but it’s not ground-breaking.
However, his eponymous second album, which was released the following year, is probably my favourite Bowie album. Here it is on Spotify.
I like it for many reasons, among which are the following:
- Bowie is noted for his ability to make songs tell stories. Matt Haig (one of my favourite authors) once said that Space Oddity – one of Bowie’s later and more famous songs – is “the best book I have ever listened to”. I agree, but I think the David Bowie album is the beginning of this part of his career.
- I also (predictably) like that the songs are quite stripped-back and have fewer effects than most of his later albums.
- I love Rubber Band because of its storyline, and because of the music, and because of his little emotional interjections (“you’re playing my tune out of tune! oh!”).
- I enjoy Love You Till Tuesday because it immediately brings up in my mind a video of me dancing with Bowie as Jareth in Labyrinth (more on that later), interspersed with him hanging around in a tree like a sort of shiny, gangly Cheshire Cat.
- I love There Is A Happy Land because I think it’s just a really nice song.
- I love When I Live My Dream even more in retrospect because I feel like the first couple of lines – “When I live my dream, I will take you with me // riding on a golden horse” are both beautifully Bowie in their eccentricity, and also a promise to fans which he repeatedly fulfilled.
- I love Little Bombadier because I love the way he says “Bombadier” and “full of joy”. And it’s a sad story about a misunderstood person, and I like those.
- Join The Gang has possibly my favourite Bowie lyric of all time: “Johnny plays the sitar, he’s an existentialist”. Every time I hear it, I think “Why can’t we introduce everyone like that?” Scar plays the voice, she’s a Kierkegaardian.
- She’s Got Medals is what I used to listen to as a teenager and want to be.
- Maid Of Bond Street is the best angsty teenage breakup song, like, ever, because there’s nothing quite like wailing the words “This girl is maaaaade of loneliness” whilst sobbing into your pillow and tearing up pictures of your high school boyfriend.
After that there are a lot of very famous songs, which you’ve no doubt heard before. Space Oddity is one of his most well-known, and is amazing, especially if you listen to it with good headphones on and lie back with your eyes closed appreciating the surround sound and the story. It was also one of the most quoted ones when he died, including in this brilliant New Yorker cartoon, and it therefore now has the unfortunate effect of making me cry.
Bowie had a bit of a space obsession. This, coupled with his penchant for spacey videos and his unusual appearance, prompted some of us to hold a deep-seated yet unconscious belief that he was some kind of immortal alien who’d decided to come and live on earth, and who would therefore be around forever. This made his death even more surprising, even to rational physicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Speaking of his unusual appearance, another of the most-loved things about Bowie is how much of an odd one out he was, and how much he just didn’t give a fuck about it. This was aptly summed up by a number of people on Twitter when he died:
“I loved David Bowie because you knew if it was OK for him to be David Bowie it was just fine to be yourself.” – @shutupmikeginn
“Bowie existed so all of us misfits learned that an oddity was a precious thing. He changed the world forever.” – @RealGDT (Guillermo del Toro, no less)
“My Twitter is sad, because my Twitter is full of people who used to be the odd one out. And Bowie was the best odd one out of all.” – @missellabell
Also, this from Caitlin Moran:
He also had the most amazing smile when having a kitten placed on his head:
His reaction to “But what if people think you’re too weird and don’t like what you’re doing?” is the best ever:
Also this quote, which is pure #lifegoal material:
But back to the music.
The other songs of Bowie’s which you’ll already know are Heroes, which has been covered about sixteen million times*, and Under Pressure, on which he collaborated with Queen, making it possibly the coolest song ever recorded.
*possible slight hyperbole
In 1972 he decided to recreate himself as Ziggy Stardust (kicking off his obsession with space themes), and this was what rocketed him into superstardom around the world. Everyone was like “who the fuck is this amazing and somehow strangely attractive alien man thing with his brilliant words?”
He also reinvented himself several times, giving himself lots of different names. As you can imagine, this is yet another thing that made me love him.
1973’s Aladdin Sane is where the iconic lightning-stripe face paint comes from.
His 1974 album Diamond Dogs is another one of my favourites, because it has a delightfully weird opening and it includes Rebel Rebel, which is a fucking excellent song when you’re a teenager and which remains amazing when you’re an adult.
Station To Station, which was released in 1976, is another of my favourite Bowie albums, for reasons that will become obvious as soon as I describe it. He wrote it in a cocaine-fuelled haze (and was later very open about his drug use). He had developed an obsession with Nietzchean philosophy, with the occult and with Aleister Crowley (a witch who founded the spiritual path of Thelema, and who set up the successor to the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society). All of these things are evident in the album. Bowie himself called it “my darkest album” and said “no one has ever really got it”. Which, of course, just makes me love it more.
But wait! let’s take a moment to look at what I’ve just written.
All I’ve done is describe some of my favourite Bowie albums, which doesn’t even scratch the surface of how many he’s released. He has twenty-six albums in total. Between 1969 and 1977, he released an album every year. In 73 and 77, he released two. And these weren’t just run-of-the-mill albums. They were the kinds of albums people are still talking about now.
That’s some fucking creative genius right there.
In 1978, he narrated Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, because why not?
Again: over several decades, Bowie released so much music that it’s almost unreal. After hits throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, in 2002 Bowie released Heathen, an album partially inspired by the black-and-white surrealist films of the early 20th century, and which in turn inspired hundreds (probably more) of pastel goth people.
Before we move on to all the stuff he did that wasn’t music, I of course have to mention Blackstar.
Everyone was very excited that Bowie was coming back. He started writing Blackstar just after he was diagnosed with cancer, and it’s an album that’s largely about death. It’s also quite dark and occulty. The video for the title track is more of a short film than a music video:
He didn’t tell fans he was dying. He kept quiet about it – was notoriously quiet about his private life throughout his career, in fact, whilst still agreeing to give interviews and being nice and unusually human in them. But more on that later.
Three days before he died, he released Lazarus as a single and video. Everyone watched it thinking “Ah, another weird Bowie video, excellent.” Which it is, but it’s also a goodbye, and it’s heartbreaking and lovely and just plain odd. And the lyrics are particularly poignant. It opens with the words “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and continues with lyrics like “You know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird; ain’t that just like me?”
I love the last track on Blackstar – I Can’t Give Everything Away – because it feels like a message to fans. His producer confirmed that the album was released as a parting gift for his fans, which made us all cry harder.
I love Dollar Days because of lines like “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to // it’s nothing to me”, which is exactly the kind of melancholy yet resigned lyrics I love the most.
Graeme Thomson on Twitter summed it up the best:
“We were all so thrilled to have him back we failed to notice he was saying goodbye.”
So, that’s Bowie’s music.
But there’s more!
He’s also an actor. I haven’t actually seen most of his films, but I’m sure I’ll manage to fix that over the next few years. A couple of standout ones I have seen, though: he’s the narrator of The Snowman, for one thing.
And he’s Jareth. It is impossible to describe Jareth. It is also impossible to describe Labyrinth and why I (and so many other people) love it so much, but I will try.
Labyrinth was directed by Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets. It was produced by George Lucas, the man behind Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Terry Jones, a Monty Python person, wrote a lot of the script. Gates McFadden, whom I love because she’s one of my favourite badass ladies on Star Trek, did the choreography. The characters were based on illustrations by Brian Froud, who is arguably the best fairy artist in the world ever (by which I mean “artist who draws fairies”, not “artist who is actually a fairy”, although I wouldn’t be surprised).
It is camp, ridiculous, brilliant, wonderful, set in the realm of fantasy, and completely fucking insane. It is, in other words, basically “David Bowie: The Movie”.
Lots of people who watched it as teenagers said it was their sexual awakening, largely because of the obscenely tight costumes Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie’s character) wears. It wasn’t my sexual awakening (unsurprisingly), but it was perhaps my spiritual one. I watched it for the first time when I was very ill and high on morphine. I was in my living room, which at the time looked like something out of a surrealist film anyway, and I’d recently left my mother’s religion. A friend introduced me to it, and it gave me an obsession with Brian Froud, otherworldly realms, and an increased desire to find out more about witchcraft and the occult. It also increased my love of Bowie.
Other crazy-wonderful shit Bowie has done
- Launched his own ISP, and run it for eight years
- He appeared, along with his supermodel wife, as characters in a video game, for which Bowie also wrote the soundtrack
- Oh yeah, he married a supermodel
- He wrote songs for the SpongeBob SquarePants musical
- He spent a lot of time in the 80s and 90s campaigning for black musicians to be more prominent on TV
A couple of the main things I love about him come from interviews he’s given.
In an interview with an American host (Conan O’Brien? Someone like that?) he was asked about his daughter, who was two years old. “So, you have a daughter?” the presenter asked. “Yes,” he said, “and I have a son. He’s 31.” I thought that was nice. Like he was reminding people that his relationships with his children were equally important, regardless of age.
He has, of course, been nominated for (and won) a ridiculous number of awards. However, I love his awards policy, because it sums up his ability to walk the line between polite British man and badass rockstar.
He essentially refuses to go to most awards ceremonies, because with most of them, they won’t give you the award if you’re not there, and it’s basically a big PR stunt for the awards bodies, which he doesn’t like. So he says no to picking up the award, because it’s nice to be awarded for making good art, but only if that’s actually what the award is for. Nonetheless, he’s still won so many that they have to have their own separate Wikipedia page.
So, that’s Bowie: An Introduction.
I will leave you with this thought, from a wise person on Twitter:
…and this one, from a much less wise person 😉