David Bowie and the Purpose of Art

(Pictured: David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Gladys Knight Roberta Flack [my bad] in a most excellent shot from the 1975 Grammy Awards.)

This is not the post I’d planned to put up here today. A few years ago, I wrote about my home 8-track deck, which I bought sometime late in 1975 or early in 1976. I was going to reboot that post as part of the 1976 Project, since it also included a mention of David Bowie’s Station to Station album, which came out 40 years ago this month. Even after getting the news of Bowie’s passing on Monday, I intended to stay with it—but I can’t. Bowie deserves better than playing second fiddle to another damn 70s story of mine, and better than the post I cobbled together on Monday within an hour of learning about his death. So here’s another try.

When Lemmy Kilmister died a couple of weeks ago, the level of grief and celebration on social media was remarkable. I couldn’t recall another celebrity whose death touched so many different people, from political commentators to country music bloggers to people who wisecrack about sports on Twitter. But the response to Bowie’s death dwarfed it. So many tributes, so much historical perspective, so much love from average fans—I find myself hoping that Bowie somehow grasped just how beloved he was, because it would be a shame if he died without knowing it.

I cannot tell you that David Bowie changed my perception of the music I love. The trajectory of my life was not altered by one of his albums. (He did inspire me to try and sneak into an R-rated movie before I was old enough: in 1976, my cousin and I badly wanted to see The Man Who Fell to Earth.) I was not one of those 70s kids who saw in Bowie a validation for their feelings of being “different,” whatever “different” meant. But after reading stories from people who were affected in such ways, I understand now how incredibly important that was. It gets to the very purpose of art.

It’s our view at this blog that the job of the artist—whether he or she is a musician, an actor, a sculptor, a writer, or somebody who makes balloon animals—is to reveal to people stuff they can’t see for themselves. It can be a simple act: in the case of this low-rent blog, I’m happy if I can share a half-assed insight that makes you go, “hmm, I never thought of that.” Some artists aim far higher: think Picasso’s Guernica or “Like a Rolling Stone,” works undertaken with the intent of turning the world upside down. One use of David Bowie’s art is to say to people, “you be you.” Let others adjust to how you are. Don’t always be the one who conforms, the one who does what’s expected of you. It’s OK to live by your own lights, whatever those lights are.

David Bowie’s constant reinventions—his insistence on taking his audience to new places—wasn’t easy on some of us. As I wrote back on Monday, I adored the Thin White Duke, but when Bowie moved to Germany and started hanging out with Brian Eno, I had trouble following. And just when people were getting their minds around the Berlin Trilogy of Heroes, Low, and Lodger, Bowie swerved back toward a more commercial sound on Scary Monsters before going all-in on Let’s Dance. And after a few years of that, he upset the applecart again, with Tin Machine.

But that’s modern life, right? Nobody takes a job at age 21, puts in 40 years doing the same thing every day, and retires with a gold watch and a pension anymore. More often, we take what we know and what we hope and we reinvent ourselves, sometimes by necessity and sometimes by choice, often more than once. Many of us end up in a place far from where we began. And it’s OK to live like that.

I am not sure this post is an acceptable tribute, either. One of the things this week has shown me is that there are many, many people in the world with more and better things to say, and they say them more eloquently than I do. (That’s why I don’t write a lot of obituary/tribute-type posts here.) But this week has taught me, as Joni Mitchell first taught long ago, that often, you really don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

5 responses

  1. I guess that I like the idea of Bowie more than the actuality of Bowie – i.e. I’m glad that he existed for his effect upon other people that I enjoy more. Still, I could put together a pretty good mix CD of his stuff that would make for enjoyable listening – Rebel Rebel and Suffragette City, especially.

  2. FYI – that’s not Gladys Knight – it’s ROBERTA FLACK!

  3. More than just acceptable, jb. Nicely done. (As for me, I’ve realized this week that I like a lot more of Bowie’s work than I would have guessed.)

  4. I wonder what each of the people in that photo is thinking (not least of all Garfunkel).

    Maybe it’s just a function of the people I follow, but it seemed like the Bowie tributes I saw on social media (from tweets to thinkpieces) were not only heartfelt, but creative and intelligent. Lots of inspiration and connection between Bowie and his fans, more than I would ever have realized.

    I have wondered what it’s been like for some of Bowie’s less transcendent contemporaries — in particular, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — to see the avalanche of love and contemplation that has followed Bowie’s death.
    I wonder if they regret spending less time upsetting the applecart and more time playing “She’s So Cold,” because they will be judged on that.

    I have also been wondering if recent days if my fondness for “Young Americans” — one of my favorite tunes from the Changesonebowie collection, which I had as a teen — was an early stirring of the fondness for Philly soul that I didn’t put into words until much later.

    1. Given that he has no problem slagging the Beatles, I can’t imagine that Keith spends much time regretting that he was less avant garde. Jagger, on the other hand, seems to have tried to do a lot of the things that Bowie did better – act, create memorable videos and visual displays, be a trendsetter for style and fashion. Then again, I don’t know if Bowie was ever a more important artist than the Stones and not just in commercial terms. He was a purer artist, however, in part because Mick always ended up camping everything up.

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