Ain’t that close to love?
It’s been a bad few weeks for stage and screen. Actually for all of us.
First Lemmy, legendary hellraiser and Motorhead frontman, then John Bradbury, soft spoken Specials’ drummer, and now David Bowie, who surely was supposed to outlive the rest of us mere mortals. The shockwaves of their passing still registering as yet another giant of both stage and screen, Alan Rickman, leaves the building for the last time. Like Bowie, just 69, and in another grim parallel, also brought low by cancer.
In the end, even the flesh we all assumed was otherworldly turned out to be just shell casing, corroded, made brittle by disease. Cancer – lung, pancreatic, throat – the uninvited guest, helping itself to healthy blood cells, sneakily planting its own toxins out of sight, where they gestate, morph, grow fat for the coming offensive. But this isn’t about that. Just too ignorant and long in the tooth this end for some florid lament analogous to decline. We’ve got science for that, medical journals, experts, Breaking Bad.
It’s not about us really, all this loss, though we like to believe it is. Ultimately which of us can say, hand on heart, that we actually knew the duke, or the hellraiser, or even the mild mannered drummer? Exactly. It’s rather their presence we felt in the architecture of our own cultural reinvention.
In the case of Bowie, ‘making pop like it was art and giving boys the keys to the dressing-up box’ (Grayson Perry), or providing ‘a doorway to new images, books, art, cultural references and sounds…’ (Sheryl Garratt) In other words, the chiselled cipher as a fabulously bespoke primer to aesthetics, high modernism and of course cheekbones.
Add to that the lithium and funk sticksman who showed how it was possible to both stay humble and keep time on the two tone revolution or the self mythologizing ex-Hendrix roadie whose name, and face, would become synonymous with the uncompromising subculture of heavy metal. The point being, it’s the risks they took which anatomized our humdrum, allowed us to keep stomping, or skanking, or swinging. And if not that, then gave us permission to have a go, make mistakes, come back stronger. To adopt a stance, maybe even some swagger, feel no way about the ridicule. In actual fact to welcome it because the scorn of the droogs meant that you were doing something right. And be honest, they were droogs, in your prickly, adolescent world, anyone who didn’t get it, didn’t understand what simultaneously made ‘Up the hill backwards’ and ‘International Jet Set’ pop perfection: droogs by default.
Of course now that you’re older, presumably wiser, you can see how the ‘plastic soul’ Bowie look of ‘Young Americans’ (wedge, Oxford bags, spats) presaged so much of what would subsequently unravel at legendary London soul institution, ‘Crackers’ and right across the soulboy, and later New Romantic, fraternities. That’s what’s meant by inspiration, the raw materials for self assembly, and it’s why so many people are feeling the loss so personally.
An ordinary south London kid playing on bombsites, then going far beyond the aerial reach of the Luftwaffe. When he came back down to earth, a new look, a fresh sound, in his own words: ‘the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey.’
And somehow with the chutzpah to carry it all off. That’s the Bowie, the pre-synthetic art funk, the one with a young Luther on the Dick Cavett Show singing backing vocals on Young Americans. That’s whose face adorns this recurring dream, of legs wobbling, and the flimsiest of apparatus come crashing down, a baby giraffe in the desert wreckage. Or maybe it’s the outback and the wreckage is a dreaming. Perhaps it’s the rubble of a childhood at Stansfield Road, and look again, that’s no child emerging from the debris, it’s the Thin White Duke. The nuts and bolts of self assembly seamlessly stitched into a timeless classic.
Sound and vision, in Rory MacLean’s heartfelt eulogy, the gift of an ‘unmasked messenger who told us, all the fat-skinny people, all the nobody people, that we were beautiful, that we could be ourselves.’
He’s gone now, the duke, the others too. But in the chutzpah, and the soft spoken, the lithium and the excess, some kind of a blueprint left behind. As John Bradbury’s friend and erstwhile bandmate, Terry Hall, once suggested.
The real question, as ever, contained within. ‘Are you up to it?’