RIP David Bowie – the shapeshifter who changed lives

THE first FTR This Week’s Specials newsletter of 2016 was written and about to be sent out when I heard the news of David Bowie’s death.  I’m a Radio 4 Today programme addict. It defines my early morning along with a couple of mugs of tea. But the news at 7am on Monday did not so much start my day as stop it in its tracks. Me and millions of others listening to their radios, watching television or catching up on their iPad or smartphones.

Bowie would probably have relished the diversity of technology that transmitted the news of his death from cancer, at what seems to be a shockingly early age of 69.

It was one of those rare occasions when a death touched the hearts of countless people, irrespective of age and background. Over the course of that particularly busy day, at a succession of meetings everyone we met had memories or were simply shocked by the loss of a man who was without doubt one of the defining artists of our time.

I was living in the Middle East and came late to Bowie, but Gay was a huge fan who actually spent time with  him during the Ziggy period. Throughout Monday she had phone calls and emails from friends, even a call from a newspaper wanting her memories. One friend just said she was “very sad.” Another emailed immediately after hearing the news “omg, can’t believe it, so many memories!” My daughter in California emailed at about 5am her time” “I’m shocked. Thinking of you because I am sure this was difficult news to get today.” And a friend in Italy wrote: “I’m reeling in shock as you must be too. Thanks for taking me to that unforgettable Ziggy gig in Southampton.”

There were countless tributes – everybody including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prime Minister David Cameron and Tony Blair had to say something, although not everybody had something to say. The high street campaigner Mary Portas tweeted “Thank you for the music” – which was simple and to the point. But it was probably Paul Gambaccini who most clearly identified that Bowie, particularly in the Ziggy Stardust days had helped young, confused, alienated people to explore their own identities and find themselves. Gender-bending is now so trendy that it is in danger of becoming a cliche, but it wasn’t fashionable 40-odd years ago. It was brave and shocking.

The 1970s likes of Cameron and Blair (pompous, self-serving politicians are always with us, only the names change) were quick to condemn the iconoclastic, androgynous star then. Now they want to embrace his memory, as if it will shed a little stardust on their tarnished image. He doubtless would enjoy this irony with one of his smiles and an elegant arched eyebrow.

The recent limited edition book of photos of Bowie from the crucial 1972-73 period shows the musician as a work of art. That is the period which made the most impact on so many fans who are this week mourning his death. The later years, particularly the drug-clouded Berlin period and some very odd public statements, are largely forgotten. For the past 20-plus years, he has been married, living in New York, but never entirely out of the public eye or off the stage and always in touch with the art and music scene. There was something fitting in the shocking proximity of the release of his final album, Black Star, on his 69th birthday, and his death three days later.

In an interview some years ago he explained his constant explorations of new sounds, new technology, new ideas as the result of his “itchy feet,” implying that he had a low threshold of boredom, and in another interview he spoke of his “malevolent curiosity” driving his creativity.

Bowie changed many things. He changed music, he changed live performance, he crossed cultural boundaries, brought mime, theatre and film into his shows, created different personae and left a legacy that is as much visual as aural.

He was a mythic shapeshifter. The word “icon” is overused now to the point of meaningless, but Bowie was a cultural icon. He was a genius, a restless innovator who pushed boundaries and stimulated thoughts and debate. Not everything he did was exciting, interesting or good. Nobody who constantly changes and experiments and explores can get it right every time. It is the fact that they try that is important

Rock music and the contemporary arts scene have lost one of the towering figures of our time. Thanks for the music and the memories.

Fanny Charles