I had the pleasure of being in London last week. Mostly for work, but I did get a day off for good behaviour and went to see the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A. Any regular readers of my blog will know just what a big Bowie fan I have been since the age of about 10, when I bought my first single of ‘Scary Monsters, Super Creeps’. One of those small vinyl 45 records – remember those?
It was very, very busy, with visitors of all ages and nationalities. I could see grandparents who had probably disapproved of Bowie at the time, youngsters who were toddlers when Bowie last toured. One of the best things about the exhibition was that it was mainly about Bowie the artist, the sheer breadth of his vision, interpretations of his work, his cultural influences (what had an impact on him and how he in turn impacted others). Not so much about his personal life, his marriages, his drug-taking and other adventures. And that’s how it should be.
Maybe there was an oddly elegiac feel to the exhibition, not just celebrating his life and achievements, but almost rounding them off, stamping a seal of finality to it all, as if nothing more is to come. Luckily, the man himself proved them wrong, releasing a new album just before the exhibition opened. ‘Here am I/ Not quite dying’ he sings slyly in ‘The Next Day’. And it’s that deadpan humour, that dirty grin and naughty twinkle in his eyes that I have always loved about Bowie.
I prefer to rejoice in the music and words of the past five decades, equally fresh and enigmatic today. The exploration, the persona, chopping and changing, referencing the work of others and his own past work: there is so much richness and complexity there, you can never get bored. He contains multitudes.
Above all, what I find inspiring is that he was not only a genius (or at the very least a hugely talented musician and artist), but that he also worked very hard for all that he has achieved. He left school at sixteen, but continued to educate himself throughout his life. He makes fun of his pretentious suburban teenager self, choosing books whose titles would make him look good as they peaked out from his pockets. Yet, somehow he devoured everything, absorbed everything, forced himself to learn, for example by listening to jazz ‘until I learnt to like it’. He experimented with automatic writing, cut-up technique, Buddhism, expressionist art, German synthesizer music… and yes, drugs. But he cleaned up just in time.
He had a very clear vision of the future, huge drive and no doubt that he would achieve stardom on his own terms. From the very start, when he was still a teenage singer and saxophonist in various bands, he was intent on controlling all of the aspects of stage production, not just music, but image, costumes, lighting, backdrop (more Ground Control than mere Major Tom, as one reviewer recently put it). Throughout, he never pandered to his fans, but continued to produce just the kind of music he wanted to make. Thinking out loud, in a way, and taking his followers with him. Or not. But not really desperately caring either way.
The boy who was ahead of his time and years. The man who never forgot the boy inside. Always open to learning, to trying something new, to collaboration. And the new album? Growing old gracefully and disgracefully, with all the pain and nostalgia that entails. Beautiful.
- Bowie’s back – 8 January 2013 (paulsmith.co.uk)
- V&A Announces David Bowie is happening now, a Live Cinema Event (close-upfilm.com)