1976: David Bowie poses for an RCA publicity shot in 1976. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

David Bowie, 1947-2016, poses for an RCA publicity shot in 1976. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

David Bowie- legendary musician, transgressor, actor, and barrier-breaking performance artist is dead… Musician Gao Xiasong wrote “Time is cruel. One after the other the heroes of my youth disappear.” Truer words were never spoken… News of Bowie’s death shocked me, not only because, “Bowie always seemed like the kind of person that was just always around.” But because Bowie felt not just ‘part of’ but ‘integral’ to my youth. Personally, I will unashamedly say as an artist he is an indispensable part of my Voice.

As a stylist Bowie is said to be one of the most influential figures in pop culture. Ever. Bowie broke the mold, becoming a new kind of artist who used pop music to platform a new type of performance art which exercised a new type of influence on mainstream Western culture. When he appeared in the 1970s there was no precedent for him in pop culture- although in a way he was a natural urban evolution after 60s psychedelia and lifestyle experimentation. He channelled all manner of underground cultures and synthesised them into his stage shows which were held together by mythologies he created around personas he invented around himself. Each album was another chapter in an evolving story involving his mutating characters.

He combined carbaret, mime, progressive Western theatre, Japanese ritual theatre, psychedelia, punk, transvestitism, Philadelphia sax music, jazz, “the avant-garde, androgyny, science fiction, German minimalism, soul, blues, punk, and the New York underground”. Grace Jones would be a comparative sort of artist in terms of boundary-pushing inventiveness, with Madonna and Lady Gaga being the bastard children of the two. Bowie was androgynous and then openly bi-sexual when such things were not spoken. Whilst Bowie’s stage shows and always-changing public personas waved the freak flag high they were always deliberate, controlled, and choreographed. Moreover they were hypnotic because at the centre of all the freakishness Bowie himself was definitively ‘cool’. This ‘coolness’ is what transformed what could have been yet another fringe performer into a 120 million album seller over 4 decades… And from beginning to end- above all- Bowie was quintessentially an Artist. The quintessential Artist! Almost a new prototype for the modern artist in a globalised electronic world. As a visionary image-maker, fashion trend-setter, and always-searching musician he championed being dangerous. He was always in revolt against the boring. He famously twice turned down national awards from the Queen: a Commander of the British Empire and a knighthood.

Bowie affected thousands of us artists across the world as inspiration and pioneer, but in the 70s his impact was not only artistic, it was social and personal. He affected lifestyle, liberating untold thousands of the strange. Impact? There is really no telling how many people he freed by his courage in his own voice… As unlikely a person as Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal football club said: “The message he gave to my generation is important. Be strong enough to be yourself.” NBC News’s headline simply stated: “Weirdo Broke Down Barriers, Inspired Legions.” Music critic Paul Gambaccini said, “Almost every young person who thinks of themselves as an outcast or a freak … could identify with one of Bowie’s personae.” He liberated many dealing with gender identity issues. His light will be missed. At a time in the world when conformity- especially conformity masquerading as independence and rebellion, and especially such conformity raised to the level of fundamentalism- is such an overwhelming force, the lesson of Bowie is crucial.

No other person than this current generation’s major artistic bad-boy and transgressor Kanye West tweeted, “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.” And there it is again: ‘Magic’. In my review of JJ Abrams ‘The Force Awakens’ I spoke about that movie and its measured cancellation of George Lucas’s expansive always-mutating vision and said that the movie’s reduction of ‘global myth’ into a calculated ‘product’ shorn of Risk, Art, and Imagination represented a subjugation of Individuality and Vision and was an intimation of ‘the end of Magic’ in the Western Imagination. David Bowie’s passing feels like a confirmation of that trend.

However, such collapses as those manifest in the inherent conservatism of ‘The Force Awakens’ and Bowie’s death are not just about the decline of the West, they are also emergency flares and rallying cries for those of us from the ‘Fringes of the West’ to rise. It is an alarm bell for us to claim our own unique voices to raise our own flags high as an alternative- not just in Art, but in philosophy of Living. Already the West is awash in hundreds of voices from the fringes who are announcing this newness- from the Mexican directors of genius films like ‘The Revenant’ and ‘Gravity’ to the whole slew of Nigerian-British actors like David Oleyo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and John Boyega who are now the brave new face of the black image internationally. The importance of putting ourselves at the centre of your own universe and following your own star must become a defining theme for this Age. Like Bowie we must have the courage to live our most Beautiful Selves.

The other part of Bowie’s story I find important is the role of Arts education and institutions. Bowie was a misfit child with a penchant for fighting who had avenues for his energy at primary, secondary, and tertiary level education. After an intense primary school art education, Bowie failed Common Entrance and went to an Arts Tech college for such students. Then as a teenager he became part of the subsidised and independent Art Labs movement which sprang up all over Britain. He led one and it was here that he incubated his voice as an artist. There is no understating the importance of society providing spaces for its weirdo children to find themselves. There is no discounting the urgency for our society to engage the creation of Magnet Schools for the Arts for our own such genius children who this society currently dooms into becoming delinquents and defeated. Long live the freaks!

Rest in Peace David Bowie.

Brilliant Bowie songs:

Posted on January 11, 2016, in President's Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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