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When David Bowie died, the news was met with two broad reactions. Either an outpouring of sorrow at his passing, or with bemusement at that reaction. In a sense, I fall in to the latter category.
I understood well enough the influence David Bowie had on music and culture in general, and appreciate his importance. But at the same time, he is not someone who I feel passionate about personally for his music. I am aware of him, although not emotionally engaged.
To me Bowie is someone who has always been there. Ziggy Stardust from old footage of Top of the Pops in the 70s, a strangely ill looking suited figure from the 80s, and then such different musical experimentation in the 90s and beyond. But to me, he was in the background though, never in the forefront.
But then, that’s just me. When I say there was an outpouring of grief, that’s not an understatement. My Facebook feed was, for the first couple of days after he died, absolutely full of clips, articles and notes of commemoration in his name. I must admit, the level of mourning did surprise me a little.
There are two ways of reacting to this. I reacted by realising that maybe this is someone I could have invested more time in listening to whilst he was still alive and creating. That maybe, judging by how missed he was, that I could have underestimated just how important he was. The other way to react to this was to think that everyone who was sad was being really weird.
That reaction, I don’t understand. Well, maybe I do understand it, even if I don’t agree with it. It’s because you ‘don’t get it’. Whether you feel like you have missed out on something, or you genuinely have no interest in it, it’s not something you can understand. Sure, in itself, that’s not a problem. But how can anyone state that the emotional reaction of others to someone’s death is ‘too much’?
One friend compared it to Lady Diana dying. I understand her point, but I wouldn’t agree it’s quite the same. Lady Diana came from the cult of the Royal family. its whole existence is about maintaining a hierarchical order by making you believe it’s members are not just important but vital simply through their existence. Having someone set up on a pedestal like that dying, no matter how maligned she had been at times in the press, is a shock. Did a normal woman passing require such public outpouring of sadness? Perhaps not.
But David Bowie wasn’t royalty, he was a musician. His celebrity was built around people listening to his many albums, and experiencing their own individual emotional reaction to them. Their own emotional connection to the artist who created those albums. This is what led people to grieve.
In this sense, who is anyone to tell anyone else that their sorrow is not proportional?
I also had people complaining about how much time had been taken up on the news talking about David Bowie’s death. I assume they must have been miffed not to have as much time as they wanted to seeing children dying in Syria, or Donald Trump’s growing popularity. I know, it is such fun isn’t it?
My relationship to Bowie when he passed reminded me in the same ways of when Robin Williams or Rik Mayall died. I appreciated aspects of their work, but I didn’t have the connection with them that others had.
I remember reading comedian Michael Legge’s account of how important Rik Mayall was to him growing up, and it made beautiful sense. Rik had been a seminal voice in his most formative years. The affection you have for someone like that remains strong over the years.
I’m younger than Michael, so to me Rik Mayall was a guy on Bottom, a show I loved for it’s peurile humour when I was a teenager, but when viewed back a decade or so later just felt a tad immature. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the importance he had in comedy, an art form I adore, through shows like The Young Ones.
It’s similar to a lot of people who watch the film Citizen Kane or listen to recordings of Lenny Bruce, after hearing about their huge influence, but afterwards feel a little confused because, frankly, they just didn’t enjoy them that much. It doesn’t mean they were not incredibly important in the development of their art form, it just means that such work are examples of expression set in their own time, and that doesn’t completely translate all these years later.
With all this in mind I decided that I would be more pro-active. I have never listened to a full David Bowie album before. I have written before about how I struggle in the concept of how to listen to music, of giving myself the time to do so. Well, David Bowie has a back catalogue of 26 albums, so where on Earth do I start?
Well, I posted on Facebook and asked that if you could only listen to 3 albums by Bowie, what would people recommend? Needless to say I had a lot of responses, but it soon became clear that two albums that were being mentioned the most were ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Hunky Dory’. I decided I would listen to these two then, and also the last album he released, ‘Black Star’.
I’ll report back on my findings.