Colby Cosh on the career(s) of David Bowie:
When we look at the enduring core of what we still awkwardly refer to as “rock music,” what we find is bizarre: a group of people born between about 1940 and 1948, mostly on one island. This cluster of neighbours took black American folk music and electric instruments and used them to hammer out a musical language whose vocabulary and power eventually rivalled that of the old Western orchestral tradition.
Somehow the seeds of war fell on England and sowed giants. It can’t just have been the bombs, even if Bowie did use the V-2 as a metaphor on the Heroes LP. (Has any single person, in retrospect, done so much to make Germany cool? They need to give Bowie a monument the size of the Hermannsdenkmal.)
The awful news of Bowie’s demise on Sunday reveals that he was not quite the same kind of star as notional equals like Ray Davies, Pete Townshend or even Mick Jagger. He was a songwriter of the first rank, an omnivore and a multi-instrumentalist whose taste in collaborators is a legend unto itself — yet his involvement in music seems almost circumstantial. It was the thing one happened to do, born where and when he was.
He gave so many excellent cinema and television performances that one suspects pop stardom’s gain might have been acting’s loss. What might Bowie have achieved if circumstances had steered him into the Royal Shakespeare Company instead of blues clubs? Is there an alternate reality in which people are reminiscing about Sir David Jones’s Richard III and regretting that he never got around to Lear?
One is tempted to add that Bowie could have been a great fashion designer or conceptual artist — but, then, he was both those things, when he wasn’t, ho-hum, dashing off “Life on Mars” or “Sound and Vision.” He was not of the fashion world as such, but slip out on any night, in any city of size from Tokyo to Toronto, and you’ll see homages to Bowie. Any ambitious, expensive pop concert still follows the Bowie idiom. His imprint on world culture is rivalled by few other pop stars, and perhaps none has its breadth. One is tempted to invoke Elvis or Dylan.