David Bowie, who died yesterday aged 69, took conventional notions of identity in pop and rock, already long-haired and drug-addled after the 1960s, and hyper-blasted them into orbit, creating an explosion of myriad shapes and possibilities. He was a cultural figure who gave many souls in the 1970s and beyond the permission to explore ‘other selfs’; alternate versions of themselves, not constrained by social norms.
Rather than perform as an ‘authentic self’, David Bowie, through a number of concocted personas and striking performance ambits and gestures, explored the outer reaches of personal identity: male, female, weirdly normal, drug-fucked, spaceman, alien. In terms of Western popular culture this was revolutionary.
For some adolescents sunk in the deadened suburbs of Melbourne in the 1970s, Bowie’s provocations were a beacon. Melbourne (yet alone Australia) did not do ‘different’ in the ’70s. ‘Different’ was Bowie’s calling card. A small, diffuse cadre responded, not only to the obvious poetic and musical brilliance, but to the implicit challenge or, at the very least, permission to consider ideas and action outside the norm. While there were other contributions to this cultural provocation (Pipe Records – the ‘cosmic music’ import store, Kraut Rock, Lou Reed’s belligerent and transgressive persona, Roxy Music et al) it would not be an overstatement to say that Bowie was the figurehead. By the time he toured here in 1978 a gaggle of devotees camped outside the MCG for three weeks. The excuse was to get good tickets but really a tribe had found itself. A large part of the Melbourne punk and post-punk scene had some connection to this infamous queue. It was a notable enough cultural phenomenon to warrant a place in the recentDavid Bowie is … exhibition at ACMI.
Bowie inspired Glam, dumped it as it slid into cheesy self-parody, foreshadowed disco, helped create the seminal DNA of post-punk and, as the ’70s came to a close, created many of the sounds and mannerisms that were co-opted and imitated by both the worthy artists and poseurs of the 1980s.
On a more specific, musical level he started out writing quirky, poetic pop songs in a roughly conventional manner and gradually broke apart and reformulated the process of song writing and record making. As he moved into the ’70s he ditched the well-prepared song, the strummed twelve string guitar and the considered lyric. He became more curatorial, using the studio as an instrument, his musicians (often in incongruous combinations – the professorial sound designer and the funk rhythm section) as cyphers for his experiments in musical interference and cultural jamming. Instead of starting with a song mostly composed, the song would emerge at the end of the process. While acting with exquisite taste and judgement, he allowed accident and happenstance to lead him to surprising new configurations of rock music. He often chose exceptional collaborators; Mick Ronson, Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, Robert Fripp to name a few notables. They came and went but the music was always compelling because Bowie was the curator.
David Bowie showed, and still shows us, that there are other possibilities. We are not stuck with a given mindset, a singular process, a known destination, a predetermined sexuality, a linear destiny. Life is way more mysterious, replete with resonances, echoes and unexplored expanses. This was a heady notion for kids lost in the ’70s – it still is.
A few years ago Bowie released the track Where Are We Now?, a meditation on cloudy memory and dimming consciousness. For an artist who kept the personal at a distance he hits a peak moment of elemental emotional purity as the song closes:
As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain / As long as there’s fire / As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you
Now that he’s gone, where are we now?