New Statesman JANUARY 15-21, 2016 - by Will Self


Like a million other baby boomers I've been revisiting the soundtrack of my early adolescence this week. I confess that, although no great rock fan nowadays, I cried when I heard David Bowie had died. Cried for all sorts of reasons - not least because, unlike so many famous people in this era when medical science is our religion and disease is diabolic, Bowie had refused to go public with news of his cancer, or offer us ringside seats as he "battled" with it. One minute he was, if not present, at least immanent in the way of all great and influential artists; the next he was gone.

Unlike "Sir Mick" and "Sir Elton", Bowie had refused state honours from the British government. And he'd done it not once, but twice. The message was clear: he didn't seek status or preferment in this world, at least not the sort politicians dole out. I never met him myself. Indeed, my only direct connection with him was fairly bizarre: a copy of Alethea Hayter's classic work of literary critical history Opium And The Romantic Imagination, with "David Bowie" inscribed on the flyleaf, together with his Swiss address, in charmingly juvenile, cursive handwriting. I'd acquired the book from a friend, Kevin Armstrong, who at the time (mid-1980s) was playing guitar in Bowie's Tin Machine band. It kicked around the house for some years until, suffering from my conscience, I mailed it back to him.

He never thanked me, even though I'd put a return address, but I bore no ill-will; I reasoned he must be busy. Or, if not busy, like some deity who'd created not just one world but many, he was resting from his labours. I wouldn't claim to have an exhaustive familiarity with Bowie's oeuvre but then I don't need to - his music, in common with that of the Beatles, constitutes the backdrop on to which the transitory experiences of my own life have been projected; a romantic imagination indeed.

Bowie is always described as a shapeshifter, one whose artistic success related directly to his willingness to reinvent himself in a bewildering array of guises and poses. But I don't see it like that at all: the great achievement of English popular music artists resulted from the willingness of a handful of visionaries not simply to slavishly copy American rock'n'roll, but to hybridise this music with indigenous British popular culture, specifically with the music hall. Like the quick-change vaudevillians, Lennon, Bowie and their successors (one thinks of Morrissey) wrote mythopoeic songs that implied the existence of entire cultural realms - realms that were obscure and yet tantalisingly familiar, inhabited by the likes of Sergeant Pepper, Aleister Crowley and the Bewlay brothers. It was in these alternative worlds, spun into existence from riffs and melodies and hooklines, that Ziggy Stardust struck attitudes, the Jean Genie slunk about, and the Spiders From Mars cavorted - and it was around these worlds that Major Tom orbited, awaiting his rendezvous with the Star Man.

Lying in bed with the covers pulled up over my head and a cheap Japanese transistor radio pressed to my ear, I really thought I could see those sailors fighting in the dance hall; really believed I understood the lines, "Pour me out another phone / I'll ring and see if your friends are home." Perhaps in a way I did understand them, because Bowie's music offered this total immersion, a feeling more akin to the experiences offered by contemporary virtual reality than by the analogue past.

I was never a Bowie obsessive - I engaged fervidly with his music at times, then cooled and drifted away. I might've been expected to cleave to the work of his heroin-addled Berlin years but I didn't: Bowie loomed so large, was so fucking big during those years, that it became a point of honour for anyone with pretensions to being avant-garde to try to avoid him. Some albums couldn't be avoided, though - Hunky Dory, which I spent an entire summer listening to in the year I turned sixteen (in 1977 it already seemed like a mysterious relic from a distant cultural past); and, oddly, Let's Dance, which the hipsters of the early 1980s reviled for its poppy perfection, but which I adored as perfect driving music. When I saw Nic Roeg's film The Man Who Fell To Earth, I, in common with many others, assumed Bowie had been typecast as the infinitely sad, painfully vulnerable alien - but when I saw the music video of Ashes To Ashes, I felt joined so tightly to Bowie at the hip that our bones grated, so perfectly did the sounds and images evoke the torturous and negative realm of drug addiction.

Bowie didn't do public grandstanding; he didn't, Bono-style, set himself up as a saintly figure, relieving the burden of his own conscience with conspicuous acts of charity. Instead, he released two albums in the past decade - the second one days before his death - which in their several ways were elegies for a life lived with furious intensity. Yet how strange it is to be living through the period when these great artists are dying. Bowie and his peers were avatars of the ephemeral whose art was conjured out of the sexually frustrated gyrations of teenagers, but over the decades both they and it grew and matured into a sort of classicism. All of which is by way of saying: we won't see his like again.