Monday morning, 0th week, Hilary Term 2016. A text wakes me at 7:47am. That’s about five hours before I usually get up. Groggily, I spot something from my mum about Bowie flash across the screen, and roll back into bed. I resolve to read it later; presumably she’s just heard his new album.
Three hours later, I’m up, David Bowie is dead, and the world is in shock.
David Bowie. David. Bowie. It still doesn’t quite seem real. It still jars in my mind. Can he really be gone? Surely not. It’s just another ruse – another publicity stunt – Ziggy’s ‘retirement gig’ all over again.
Bowie will rise again from the ashes. Won’t he?
The news of his death shocked the whole world, and with good reason. It soon emerged that no one outside of his close circle had even been aware he was ill, including people such as Brian Eno – Bowie’s close friend and intermittent collaborator for forty years. Even Tony Visconti, his go-to producer, had not been aware the star was on his deathbed.
Bowie was probably trying to protect those close to him from media attention, but I prefer to think of him as playing us to the last. Ever unexpected, irascible, unpredictable, at the end of it all Bowie shocked us in the greatest, most final way possible: by dying far, far too soon.
And it was far too soon, in more ways than one. Sixty-nine now feels like a life cruelly cut short, but that’s less than half the story.
As I moped about in an ineffective, depressed, and ultimately pretty pathetic manner (I mean, c’mon, I’ve never even met the guy) throughout Monday and ragged patches of Tuesday, I reflected on the deaths in the last few years of two of my other musical icons: Lou Reed (1942-2013) and Dave Brubeck (1920-2012).
Both of them were also musical giants who transformed the world and I still revere them both as heroes. Yet their deaths didn’t fill me with the sense of injustice that Bowie’s has – and it’s not just because they lived longer. Although it’s only in retrospect that I feel I can say this (or that I’ve realised it), I didn’t feel at the time as if either of them had – musically speaking – any unfinished business.
They’d said what they had to say: they’d spent a lifetime saying it, they’d said it far better than the vast majority of people ever could have, and they’d transformed the world in the process. I mean no disrespect to either of them, for whom I still have the greatest respect. But their work was done by their time of death. They’d accomplished what they’d set out to do in spectacular fashion.
The injustice I feel over Bowie’s death has many causes, but I will freely admit that a large portion stems from pure selfishness.
Bowie’s work was nowhere near done. After returning from retirement only three years ago, the world suddenly realised how much more brilliance he still had in him. He carried on relentlessly creating until the very end: his last album was released only two days before he died, he demoed five fresh songs in his final weeks, and he was laying plans for his next album.
My anger, at least in part, stems from the sense of how much more he could have accomplished had he lived. Especially when even his final album, Blackstar, was yet another unexpected turn, another leap into the unknown. Who knows where he would have gone next? What he would have done? In the words of Charles Shaar Murray, a rock journalist, ‘I can think of no other rock artist whose next album is always the one I’m most looking forward to hearing.’ That album will now never come.
Other artists – lesser mortals – have vision. They know where they want to take the world of music and they attempt to take it there, with varying degrees of success. If they’re lucky, a fair few people like what they’re trying to do and repeatedly give them money so that they can carry on doing it. Eventually people get bored; the artist tries to change, and usually doesn’t succeed.
The way I see it, Bowie had a very different kind of vision. Bowie’s mission was far more open-ended. Where other artists set out to accomplish something, Bowie was continuously rewriting his goals, continuously repositioning himself in music. His musical journey was driven, as far as I can tell, purely by his incessant urge to uncover new ground and continue innovating. His vision wasn’t about getting somewhere; his vision was the journey, and so by its very nature his mission was unfinishable. His career can be seen as an insatiable quest for knowledge, driven only by curiosity. In his own, oft-quoted words:
Still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
Turn and face the strange changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Turn and face the strange changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Bowie, ‘Changes’ (Hunky Dory, 1971)
I’m not trying to imply that other artists never change, that Bowie was somehow unique in that regard, or that no other artist has ever been versatile: that would clearly be ridiculous.
However, I do maintain that most artists change little over their careers, and it is usually only in desperation when they do, although there are clearly artists who buck the trend. Talking Heads, Radiohead, R.E.M., Joni Mitchell and others are just a few shining examples.
Yet few other such artists were as consistently brilliant as Bowie, no other artist carried this process with them to their grave. Moreover, whereas other musicians changed their sound, Bowie periodically reinvented his entire persona. From his visual appearance to his personality, the only thing apparently sacred was his unmistakable, Brixton-accented voice. He took reinvention he took so seriously that he acknowledged the line was often blurred between his real self and the characters he invented, causing at some points severe mental health problems.
And I think there’s another reason there why his death shocked the world so profoundly. After thinking about it for a while, I realised that, deep down, I’d always assumed he was somehow immortal, which is ridiculous, but listening to other people interviewed by the BBC and elsewhere, I found I wasn’t alone.
Bowie’s larger-than-life personas, his sometimes shocking visual appearance, even his name, made him seem somehow otherworldly. It wasn’t just the fact that he had mystique: it was the extent to which he committed himself to that mystique and somehow convinced us to believe in it.
Beneath his reinventions, personas, and guises, you often wondered if there really were a Bowie beneath at all – an idea that was reinforced by his renowned shyness and reluctance to open up in interviews. Could there really be a single person behind all those faces? And so, the problem: how can you come to accept the death of someone you never truly believed existed in the first place?
Anyway, cancer was hardly the way that the ‘space invader’ David Bowie would die. During his tumultuous life, Bowie was constantly battling his demons, yet he always seemed to survive through changing. After surviving a period of complete mental breakdown and dependency on cocaine in the mid-’70s, it hardly seems possible that he could die of something so mundane – so ordinary.
The vast majority of obituaries I’ve read seem to have glossed over that aspect of his life. Perhaps people are uncomfortable that some of Bowie’s most creative work was produced in the middle of a cocaine-fuelled psychosis (Station to Station) or at a point when he was struggling to clean himself up (Low, Heroes).
One – otherwise excellent – article I read by Mark Mardell seemed to suggest that we shouldn’t be talking about his drug addictions and their unfortunate consequences1 at all. I disagree. Not only is it wrong to deny history and put your heroes on a pedestal, it also makes his story all the more powerful.
Recognising his weaknesses ultimately makes him more human and the fact that he fought his demons and overcame them is a testament to his strength of character. Moreover, those incidents are simply too important to his story to ignore.
The album title Low, after all, is famously a pun. The album art, a photo shot in profile (see below) links to Bowie’s ‘low profile’ he was keeping in Berlin as he tried to recover. The title also links to his ‘low’ mood and depression at the time. But ‘low’ is also the antithesis of ‘high’, marking the first album in a while recorded at a time when Bowie was not abusing drugs.
Another thing I’ve found lacking from most of the articles and tributes I’ve read has been any kind of in-depth discussion or appreciation of his music itself.
A huge amount of deserved attention has been cast toward his position as an icon: a musical icon in his perpetual quest to incorporate new influences; an icon in changing so radically our expectations of pop musicians; a gay icon, with unashamed bisexuality2 and frequently androgynous appearance.
In the context of the last few years, that last aspect now seems hugely ahead of its time, and listening to songs like ‘John, I’m only Dancing’ and ‘Lady Stardust’ certainly helped me come to terms with being gay in my early- to mid-teens. Yet as a musician, even that’s not the thing that matters most to me, despite affecting my life massively. What matters most to me is that, time and time again, Ziggy really sang: time and time again, Bowie’s songs were simply incredible.
It’s difficult to choose a single song from his catalogue for me to talk about: his style changed so much that no one song could ever be representative. But one of my favourites has always been ‘Sound and Vision’, from the album Low (1977)3.
Low was, oddly, the first album that hooked me on Bowie, and it was certainly the album I bought first, but it’s not the Bowie that Ziggy fans will know. A collaboration between Bowie and Brian Eno, Low incorporates the influence of German ‘Krautrock’4 bands such as Kraftwerk and Neu! to create electronic textures with a greatly expanded use of synths.
Recorded in Berlin as Bowie was recovering from his drug problems, Low has a melancholy mood and pained lyrics. The songs are abrasive and strange. ‘Speed of Life’ is built around a chromatic, tonally ambiguous guitar riff; the fragmented bass and pounding drums in ‘Breaking Glass’ feel like punches; Bowie’s harmonica in ‘A New Career in a New Town’ wails horribly. Meanwhile, throughout the album Carlos Alomar uses a harsh and spiky guitar tone, while Bowie sings in a withdrawn, detached style far removed from his glam rock period.
The second half of Low doesn’t have any songs at all. Instead, it offers largely instrumental compositions that have drawn praise and recognition from leading modern classical composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass5. Tracks like ‘Warszawa’ and especially ‘Subterraneans’ drew on Bowie’s fascination with the orient, Eno’s fascination with ambient music, and their mutual interest in the modern classical minimalist movement to create unique pieces of huge expressive power and intensity. However, I’d have to get out my graphs and start using scary words like ‘monotonality’ to start talking about the second half of Low, however, and normal people seem to get scared when I do that.
So I’m going to talk about ‘Sound and Vision’, from the first half, which stands out in a different way.
From its opening, ‘Sound and Vision’ immediately contrasts with the previous songs on Low. You couldn’t exactly describe the texture as ‘lush’, but gone is the crushing textural density of the previous tracks. Instead, there is a positive mood that’s a far cry from the oppressiveness of tracks 1-3.
The two-guitar riff, supported by ringing piano chords, is pleasant, melodic and kind of catchy in a way. The synth part, in this track creating melody rather than warring against it, is equally pleasant. In the instrumental parts, the only thing held over from tracks 1-3 seems to be that pounding drum sound that is there throughout Low6.
Yet even this is altered through context. Due to a less fragmented bassline and the addition of other hissing snare drum-esque drum sounds, the drum part feels less aggressive, although there is still a weird dialectic with the guitar riff. The drums in this song also create one of the most epic song openings ever with the awesome three-strike crash that announces the start of the track.
The next notable thing about “Sound and Vision” is its pacing. In a 3:03 length track, the lyrics (discounting various ‘ah’s and ‘doo’s in the extended introduction) take their time to appear. Bowie’s words ultimately enter around 1:27-1:28 – nearly halfway through the song! This song, much as with the later instrumentals, is all about atmosphere and mood, which are given musical time and space in which to establish themselves7.
When Bowie’s lyrics finally do make their entry, they are some of the most perfect lyrics in all of pop. ‘Sound and Vision’ has no narrative structure, instead consisting of a series of images. The temporal space between each image is wide, inviting the listener to consider the implications, the metaphors, the words unsaid within each line. And there are plenty of things unsaid. The meaning is never stated, only implied, the lyrics minimal and understated to the extreme.
Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision?
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
I will sit right down
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
And I will sing,
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
Drifting into my solitude
Over my head
Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision?
Bowie, ‘Sound and Vision’ (Low, 1977)
For me, this song – more directly than any other on Low – deals with depression. It deals with numbness, emptiness inside; it deals with having no idea what to do or how to make yourself better.
Bowie enters in his lowest register, introducing the central image of the song by softly asking us, Don’t you wonder sometimes ’bout sound and vision? As Bowie sings the first half of this line, the melody slowly rises from the depths before falling back again.
This creates a tentative atmosphere – it is as if Bowie is afraid of emerging into the song structure, of making his crazy feelings known. Moreover, the word ‘sometimes’ is set to eight notes in succession, whereas an orthodox syllable-by-syllable setting would use only two. The resultant elongation of the word ‘sometimes’ subtly implies, for me, that Bowie has been wondering perhaps far more than he would care to admit about ‘sound and vision’.
Most songs would now immediately have an answering melodic phrase: the melodic phrase, Don’t you wonder sometimes ‘bout sound and vision? only takes up three bars in the repeating eight-bar chord progression. Bowie, however, defies expectations by leaving the question hanging in the air musically as well as rhetorically8. The melodic fragment is never answered, just as his question is never answered. Instead, it is left there ambiguously, and we have to wait another five bars for Bowie’s next vocal entry.
When it does come, Bowie employs a shocking two-octave jump to the very top of his register at his next entry with Blue blue, electric blue, echoing for me the apparently random moments of uncontrollable emotional outburst during depression. Immediately, he falls back to his ultra-low range to sing, That’s the colour of my room, where I will live. The moment has passed; the numbness returns.
Meanwhile, aside from the vocal delivery and musical structure, the images themselves also evoke depression and numbness. It seems to have become the standard cliché for literary critics to over-analyse the colour ‘blue’ in literature, but in this song the colour blue is clearly significant. It is first introduced half-screamed at the top of Bowie’s range; and the phrase blue, blue occurs three times in a song where very little at all is said. (The second two times it occurs, it is double-tracked: Bowie layers on top of his vocals another copy of himself singing harmony in a higher octave, emphasising the image yet more.)
The context of this image brings the depressing, melancholic connotations of ‘blue’ to the fore. Bowie immediately returns to his ultra-low register in the next line, That’s the colour of my room, and later, more explicitly melancholic images feature in the song: Pale blinds drawn on day, Nothing to do, nothing to say, and Drifting into my solitude. The context of the album as a whole is also important: every other song deals with negativity in some form, even if ‘Sound and Vision’ is the only one that deals with depression so directly.
Far more elusive is the central image of ‘sound and vision’, which is rich with connotations and could be interpreted in many ways. Every time it appears, it is unexpectedly double-tracked. This again serves to emphasise this image yet more, especially as it is contrasted with his precise, clipped style of singing in his ultra-low octave throughout most of the rest of the song.
The image of ‘sound and vision’ occurs four times in three forms, the first instance bookending the song. The passages where Bowie employs double-tracking are indicated in bold:
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision?’
‘I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.’
‘I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.’
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision?’
Bowie’s image of ‘sound and vision’ suggests searching for inspiration: searching for a way out of the numbness that binds him, searching for a means of escape from his depression. Until he finds a way out, he’ll just carry on sitting in his room; until he finds inspiration, he’ll just carry on singing. What else can he do? ‘Sitting’, as well, is an extraordinarily passive word: for me it implies utter helplessness. His emotional stasis is echoed in the guitar riff looping round, and round, and round.
The question that bookends the song, Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision, feels quite fundamental. He’s questioning everything about the way we experience the world; it is almost as if Bowie is trying to find a spiritual solution to his quest for meaning, for release. It’s open-ended, it’s confused: he is inviting us into his personal troubles. The song’s lyrics end as they begin, with the unanswered musical statement once again echoing his unanswered question perfectly. Even the backing track does not have a musical resolution; instead, the track fades out, ending in uncertainty and stasis as the guitar riff continues to loop.
Bowie’s genius comes through in the way he combines these complex and depressing images into a track that, for the listener, is both kind-of catchy and not depressing. It’s a sad song, and Bowie’s jolting octave jumps clearly convey his pain and anguish – the way his vocal delivery is completely different between his two registers feels almost schizophrenic to me. But in this track, Bowie holds back from forcing this anguish onto us, instead using the song as a cathartic form of release that we share in.
Catharsis is in fact the unifying idea behind ‘Sound and Vision’; the song is arguably only fully comprehensible by considering it through this concept. Seeing the song as cathartic release makes sense of the inherent tension between the unexpectedly melodic, positive guitar part and the pounding, aggressive drums. Catharsis links the disparate images in the second half of the song with the exultant, emotive ‘ah’s and ‘doo’s in the extended introduction: while they stand in utter contrast, they both represent a form of emotive release. Catharsis is even present in the images themselves: while they may be images of depression, they are in fact far more positive than those in some of Low’s other songs. Despite the inherent passivity of Bowie ‘waiting for the gift of sound and vision’, this image contains hope, and is one of the few images on Low where Bowie can conceive of a way out at all.
This cathartic aspect once again links this track, in a central position on the anguish-filled first side, far more to the second side of the album than the other tracks in the first. Whereas the first side (excepting ‘Sound and Vision’) details pain and anguish, the second side and ‘Sound and Vision’ offer catharsis and release. Low as an album has become my go-to album for depression – nothing else comes close.
Prior to his death, it seemed that liking Bowie had become slightly uncool. One friend told me that he felt as if the Bowie fandom had gone ‘mouldy’… and I could see what he meant. My fear is that Bowie will once again disappear from the airwaves, and that except for a small cadre of weirdos people will slowly forget.
Because there really is no replacement. Artists like Radiohead will carry on ceaselessly reinventing their sound. Artists like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus will carry on shocking the world with their outrageous outfits, deeds and personalities. No artist has ever, to my knowledge, combined the two with the success of Bowie. It doesn’t make him the greatest artist there ever was, but it does make him unique.
And so, how do we respond? It sounds trite, but I think the only way for his legacy to continue is for us to attempt to emulate Bowie in our lives.
You don’t have to like his sound, or his image. But his complete lack of fear in expressing himself, in being who he wanted to be, is something we can all aspire to.
Musicians, and indeed artists in general, can look up to his indefatigable curiosity and desire to improve: his pursuit of art for the sake of art, regardless (except perhaps for some of his work in the ’80s) of whether it was likely to be commercially successful.
Musicians and artists can look to his anti-elitism and rejection of a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Albums like Hunky Dory contain complex, sophisticated concepts within a highly accessible pop/rock soundworld9. Meanwhile, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, for all its deliberately trashy glam aesthetic, is at the end of the day a concept album, something usually associated with ‘difficult’ progressive rock music. Even Low, for all its weirdness, has within it “Sound and Vision”, which despite its depth and subtlety was catchy enough to get to #3 on the singles charts.
This time, Bowie will not rise again. He can only live on through us.
Originally published on January 22, 2016 by The Poor Print.
- The allmusic biography provides a good overview of his career.
- There has been a flood of obituaries that have appeared after his death, but in my opinion among the best responses are:
- The Economist’s obituary.
- The response from the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz.
- Mark Mardell’s musings on the power of the obituary:
- The BBC’s Front Row special.
- This piece is not primarily about Blackstar, so this shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive bibliography on his last album at all. However, these are the readings on Blackstar that were cited above:
- Rolling Stone’s interview with Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti is well-worth a read. Visconti talks about the making of Blackstar, Bowie’s plans for his next album and Visconti’s shock at Bowie’s death.
- However, Bowie’s apparently cryptic lyrics seem here to be a direct reference to a (pretty catchy) never-released “Black star” song by Elvis Presley.
- This Guardian article explores the various theories surrounding the album and its lyrics in more depth.
- Reading on Low:
- This Slate article is pretty good, going into unusual depth on the making of “Sound and Vision”.
- This site is a goldmine, containing various interviews relating to many Bowie albums.
- On 12/1/15, modern classical minimalist composer Steve Reich talked about the links between Bowie’s music and his on his Facebook page.