Tuesday 12 January 2016

Bowie, Bing and me.

David Bowie was a great artist, not only on the strength of his many dazzling achievements but also, I'd argue, on the quality of his failures. 

Great artists sometimes fail because they are constantly moving forward, never resting on their laurels. Second-rate artists (and many of these are my favourites as nobody can live on an unrelieved diet of High Art) tend to stick to what they do best - Wodehouse and Chandler come to mind. Joyce, on the other hand  . . . 

Bowie's career is a brilliant conflagration of burning bridges accompanied by era-defining haircuts - he seldom looked back, or even forwards. He was forever defining his now, which became our now and his themes were Larkinesque. As he said in a 2002 interview:

The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.

But think of the non-canonical stuff. Not just the execrable novelty single Laughing Gnome but also Tin Machine (a much-derided project which paved the way for grunge and so on); the gigs with Tina Turner; his unlovely Dancing in the Street with Mick Jagger and, perhaps above all, this very engaging duet with, of all people, Bing Crosby. If you haven't seen this before - and nearly 8 million viewers have - do watch it, and wonder. The setting is Bing's snowbound baronial lodging, ostensibly in Olde England but clearly in a Burbank studio at the height of a blazing Californian summer. "I'm David Bowie. I live down the road" says our man by way of introduction, unravelling his scarf and camply mistaking Bing for the butler, Hudson. We watch this every Christmas, affectionately, sentimentally. 

"Do you like modern music?" says the Thin White Duke.

"I think it's marvellous. Some of it's really fine" slices back the old crooner, equivocally. 

Then they sing The Little Drummer Boy together and the schmaltz meter shoots up to 11 - not a dry eye in the house. Lovely, like William Burroughs duetting with Al Bowlly.

Everyone has their Bowie memories. I tend to associate his music with Manchester in the late 1970s, which I spent as an impoverished and skinny undergraduate in the brutalist Hulme estate where we all wore dead men's overcoats. "Heroes" never sounded better than it did there, and then. The magnificent Berlin trilogy (Low, "Heroes" and Lodger) was the chilly soundtrack to those years.

That ambulant stuffed condom David Cameron (our current Prime Minister) tweeted (or got some Downing Street intern to tweet on his behalf):

I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.

'Pop genius' my arse. It's like calling Henry James a wordsmith. I can't begin to believe that Cameron grew up at all - he popped up fully-formed and glistening, a pod-hatched Tory boy. Picture him grinding away conscientiously at a Fresher's Ball to Young Americans, and shudder. Then think of his government's dismantling of a social order and education system in which a working class South London boy who failed his 11 plus and left school with a solitary 'O' level (in Art, of course) could still navigate his way through life, and keep getting it right. A huge loss indeed.

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