Bowie Surprised And Shocked With His Brilliance More Often Than Any Other Musician
David Bowie Remained One Of The Most Inventive Artists On The Planet Right Up Until His Death
By Yonatan Collier
It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning in 2013, and I arrive at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the Bowie retrospective exhibition. The museum won’t even open for another hour but I’ve heard that the exhibition has been very popular so far and I’ve decided to get down early to beat the crowds. Except when I arrive there is already a queue of a couple of hundred people waiting to get in. To a museum. On week day.
The affection that people feel for David Bowie is absolutely extraordinary. I found it moving that day at the museum and I find it incredibly moving now; seeing the outpouring of grief that greeted his death this week. I don’t think I have ever been so amazed so frequently by any other figure in popular culture, and so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that others will remember him, a stranger to most of us, as fondly as I do.
The first time that Bowie redefined my view of what is possible was when I saw him live at Glastonbury in 2000. I was young and didn’t really even consider myself a fan at the time. I probably went along to see him more because I felt I should, than because I was excited about doing so. His performance that day was so utterly captivating that by the time he had finished playing, I was a devotee, an instant convert. In all my years of watching live music I have never seen a performer so effortlessly charismatic. At one point he simply took off his coat and the crowd roared its approval.
And of course I haven’t even mentioned the music yet. It is hard to comprehend the extraordinary confidence of a musician who would terrify regular producer Tony Visconti by turning up to recording sessions without having anything written. He knew the ideas would come; they always did. There was a time certainly, in the ‘70s, when everything Bowie touched seemed to turn to gold. If someone had done nothing in their career other than produce Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ or Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ they could retire, happy in the knowledge that they had contributed to one of the masterpieces of rock & roll. Bowie produced both whilst he was busy being one of the biggest rock stars on the planet.
The music is of course what Bowie will rightly be remembered for, but with him it was always only part of the picture. One of the most staggering discoveries I made at the Victoria & Albert Museum was the extent to which Bowie involved himself in everything that surrounded the music. When you see his original sketches for the cover of ‘Space Oddity’, or for the video of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, it is incredible how closely they resemble the final product. His vision for a musical career as a work of art was singular.
No other musician has surprised and shocked me with their brilliance more often than Bowie, and that would have been the case even if he hadn’t released any new original music after 2003’s ‘Reality’. And yet he returned in 2013, at the age of 66, still the master showman and publicist. In our media saturated age, he managed to keep the recording of his new album a complete secret until the release of it’s first single ‘Where Are We Now?’. The fact that he had kept this secret of course became the story and the lack of advance publicity led to the release of the album becoming one of the most discussed musical events of the year. When Beyoncé did something similar the following year she was declared a game changer.
And so here we are, processing the death of this great man. Appropriately enough, even in this final act, Bowie found a place for art. His last single, ‘Lazarus’, released just last week opens with the line “Look up here, I’m in Heaven” and closes with “Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh, I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me”. Knowing as we do now that Bowie intended this album as a “parting gift”, listening to these lines is impossibly sad. And yet, there is something exhilarating in the man’s ability to create something so spellbinding and so apt, when he knew his life was coming to an end.
Published January 12th, 2016
Yoni Collier is a music producer, composer and writer who has been signed by (and then fallen out with) too many record labels to mention. He now freelances as this keeps arguments with colleagues to a minimum. He has written music for TV and award winning short films, and has worked as a producer with numerous artists. He also teaches music production at Leeds Beckett University.