I wrote this at the start of 2013. Celebrity Q & A’s often carry the question ‘Which living person do you most admire?’ Back then, for me, it was probably David Bowie; before him it had been John Lennon.
Earlier this year after a decade of silence David Bowie caught everyone on the hop with a new single. The social and mainstream media greeted it with rapture – which made older Bowie hands (me) give a dry smile. Each new release back in his seventies pomp provoked at best a roll of the eyes from that era’s cultural equivalents of Alastair Campbell and Piers Morgan.
The song was called Where Are We Now? A question anyone might be forgiven for asking after trekking as far through time, space and trouser styles as Bowie. The answer would have been different if in December 1980 a muddled Young American had stuck to his Plan A. For when Mark Chapman took the decision to murder a pop icon, he toyed with gunning down Bowie before plumping for ex-Beatle John Lennon – “the emblematic figure of the sixties,” according to musicologist Peter Doggett, “rather than the seventies.”
But 33 more years of Lennon and 33 less of Bowie. That might have been interesting…
As emblems of the ‘We’ then ‘Me’ decades, neither of these mischievous, multi-talented, hugely influential young artists could have been bettered. Nor could the contrast between their ‘messages’ have been much starker. (“I want you, I want you so bad,” John the peace-and-love evangelist crooned at us from the warm bosom of his ultimate sixties boy-band. “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use,” was defiantly solo David’s blunter view as he bestrode the chilly strife-torn seventies claiming to be a Spider from Mars.)
Where Lennon made an art of intimate, often troubled, confession Bowie generally kept himself to himself. Or rather to himselves, in a series of cameo-personas like Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, none of whom you’d much fancy being in a room with on your own, especially with the lights off. “Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile.” Quite.
By the time 40-year-old Lennon was killed in 1980 few believed he had a lot left in his musical locker. Starting Over, his own recent comeback single after a 5-year sabbatical, had capped a patchy seventies output. Only half the songs on its parent album Double Fantasy were his, the rest coming from a wife he insisted on giving equal billing. He had always felt twitchy on his own. Calamitously his killer grasped that as a rule Lennon’s name was linked in the world’s eye with that of someone else – whether Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono or even Bowie himself on their chart-topping 1975 duet Fame. This symbiotic side wasn’t always reflected in the legend that grew up after him. (He alone had an airport named after him, or had an anthem – Imagine – voted the nation’s favourite song lyric, or came 8th in a BBC Greatest Britons poll.) “I’m lonely, wanna die,” he’d sung as a Beatle. Yet in death he seemed fated to stand in ever more splendid isolation.
Would an assassinated Bowie have been treated likewise after 1980?
His loss would have been keenly felt, that’s for sure. Since 1969’s Space Oddity he’d released a dozen startlingly diverse studio albums with not a dud among them. Ask anyone today to name a Bowie track and it’s odds-on to date from this period. Yet while from the relative margins in 1980 Lennon could sing optimistically about ‘starting over’, all-conquering but exhausted Bowie had signed off his own Scary Monsters album that year with: “Put a bullet in my brain and it makes all the papers”. Set that alongside the fact that his rock-god alter ego Ziggy Stardust went up in smoke “when the kids had killed the man” and you can guess what kind of Bowie legend ‘the papers’ might soon have started lacquering.
But it’s not quite fair to compare Bowie like-for-like with Lennon, just 7 years his senior but part of a different pop generation. One that did a great deal to set the stage which Bowie and his ilk then lit up, on more than just the musical front. (Lennon’s use of his fame to articulate for the first time to mass audiences the pacifist political principles of a largely self-educated, stoned 20-something, for example, politicised pop to the extent that a worse-for-wear Bowie could later announce to the mid-seventies media that Britain’s socio-economic problems might best be sorted out by a dictator – ie himself.)
But still we can ask in what ways our world might now be different if Lennon had lived on and Bowie had not.
A counter-factual Lennon might have stayed indefinitely in the USA. England made him but America seemed to have made off with him. Hence his latterday songs on subjects like the Attica prison riots and his transatlantic pacifist’s enthusiasm for the IRA. (Bowie by contrast, wherever he had his home, never stopped seeming peculiarly English, albeit by way of Outer Space.) Maybe in time Lennon might have become an ultra-hip Mayor of New York City.
But could the once-Fab Four have kept resisting the global clamour to reform – maybe to play at 1985’s Live Aid, or at the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony, or even at both? For in a nightmare scenario they might never have stopped breaking up and coming back together – conducting each new myth-destroying feud across all the latest means of mass communication. (If a person was ever born to tweet it was John Lennon.) Meanwhile a repeat of his mid-seventies marital split from Yoko might have launched him into a disastrous tug-of-love too with a post-Linda Paul for the hand of Heather Mills.
Even without shenanigans like that, could any new music from the Beatles possibly have cut the mustard for Lennon-worshippers of the older 1963-70 vintage (me again)? Few stay at the top of their creative curve for much more than a decade. So while daylight would almost inevitably have flooded in on all that old magic, Bowie’s untainted post-1980 stock could only have risen. As the exaltation of Buddy Holly and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett back in the real world proved, the surest way to keep an early body of work canonical is not to add to it.
In spite of all that, we probably wouldn’t now be sitting around and cursing flight cancellations in a David Bowie Airport. Or seeing our great lost prophet of dystopia rub shoulders with Good Queen Bess (7th Greatest Ever Briton) and Horatio Nelson (9th) – although at his popinjay zenith Bowie would have cut quite a dash in both their outfits.
Counter-history can’t be that literal. But in longer-term tectonic ways we still might have evolved a little differently after 1980 within these shores.
Lennon’s death revealed a change in the way we Brits showed our feelings – or even admitted to having them in the first place. The scale of the grief on show in December 1980 surprised many. After crowds of young New Yorkers gathered at the murder scene to sing in tribute a song which they may have thought was by John but was actually Paul’s Hey Jude, McCartney himself asked how such a “manoeuvring swine” could be turned so swiftly into “Martin Luther Lennon”. “The sheer bulk of his obituaries is mysterious, beyond logic,” wrote George Melly, who was by no means a Lennon-denier.
It’s been said that the tragedy marked the true end of the sixties – there really could be no going back now – while preserving them in a particular kind of dream-aspic. In the sense that in mourning and celebrating Lennon, a healthy number of his countrymen and women traded in their stiff upper lips for a more ‘American’ kind of institutional emoting, it could also be said to have finally drawn a line under World War Two. From which point we headed off in the direction of 1997, when the death of the only 20th-century Great Briton to pip Lennon in the BBC poll, Princess Diana, prompted the extreme national outpouring that made so many of us even more unrecognizable to ourselves.
No individual can make an era or culture. But the post-1980 Lennon legend helped our era and culture to take the shape it has. A legend which tells on one hand of a brutally honest, open-hearted Espouser of Good Causes and on the other of a Victim – not just because of his assassination but also the emotional deprivations of his youth, most recently laid bare in Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2009 film Nowhere Boy. After 1980 David Bowie mightn’t have served this process as well as the highly-personalised Lennon. For while much of Bowie’s music until then had been drenched in emotion, what he’d always seemed to do by way of his role-play was bare other people’s souls.
Legends thrive too on simplicity. There were complications to Lennon but even these could be grist to the mill. A guy who sounded tough but was actually needy chimed with later times. (Dame David could sound weedy but turned out to be as tough as old boots.) And whereas Bowie switched guises so often he hardly looked like the same person from year to year, Lennon’s readiness to stand before us naked – on several occasions literally – and not hold back his pain made him that much easier to identify as a ‘modern’. So did the passionate all-in-this-together rhetoric of his larger crusades, even if the deep convictions that drove him to speak out could later seem optional. Lennon once said his words were “almost irrelevant”, that what mattered was the sound. Now that is modern.
There’s one other tendency Lennon’s death did nothing to arrest: our headlong rush into retromania. Since 1980, the sixties which were thereby slammed shut have become for many – and not just those who weren’t there – an obscure but ever more poignant object of longing. Might a Bowie death in 1980 have made us as dewy-eyed about the seventies? Hard to imagine. But as George Melly said, this kind of thing goes beyond logic. Today virtually any former decade has its champions.
Lennon himself had already pointed the way with his own fifties-based nostalgia. He went to his grave convinced that The Beatles had never improved on Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and that their “best work was never recorded” since by the time they got a contract they’d already passed their peak. In life as in music, he seemed to trust the past more. Even Strawberry Fields Forever in all its innovative glory was originally slated to form part of a larger Beatles song-collection about lost childhood. “When I was a boy,” as he wistfully sang when he was still just 25, “everything was right.”
Which it wasn’t. Or so on other occasions he gave us to understand. Although we never had the first idea what he or his life were ‘really’ like. With our emblems, we never can. Nor do we take what they say in their songs as gospel. It’s always just been about the sound, the way these prodigious people look, and then what each of us chooses to project on to them. (Where are any of us now? Where are we ever? Half the time in places that never existed.) That’s the fun and enduring uplift of revering genuinely great artists. And for quite a few of us it used to be – whisper this softly to Alastair, Piers and Co – a really rather private thing.
Thanks in no small part to Lennon and Bowie, the sixties and seventies were pop’s golden years. Bowie now would probably agree, although it’s only in the decades since then that pop has been absorbed wholesale into the establishment. Lennon’s assassination – the kind of thing that usually happened to kings or presidents – may in some small way have helped make those dismissive pre-1980 eye-rollers and their successors start to pay “the people’s music” greater lip service as a cultural phenomenon. (So that at the Olympic concert which The Beatles weren’t able to reform for, our Prime Minister could be seen on the world’s TV screens bopping to the Spice Girls.)
And as it happened, although Bowie’s life was spared 33 years ago he didn’t then go on to scale too many new musical heights, as opposed to strictly commercial ones. The shock of losing his friend and collaborator Lennon may initially have had something to do with that. But his work remained primarily outward- or forward-looking.
That may be about to change. Where Are We Now? is an unabashed revisiting of his own personal later seventies, around the time of “Heroes” (with its typically distancing inverted commas). But the album it trails will be called The Next Day, so maybe he won’t be making a habit of looking over his shoulder. What will the great and the good have to say about the new work?
A kill-the-fatted-calf response of weapons-grade strength seems likely, even if we’ll suspect that in the privacy of their own homes our opinion-formers won’t be playing it around the clock. The welcome will surely be for the 66-year-old man rather than his album. For in our retromaniac reluctance to move on from the past, we seem spooked by the idea of ‘losing’ anything from our greatest pop stars to the high street HMV stores which once ripped us off for their records. This is where we are now.
Yet Bowie still seems an awkward candidate for the warm-bath treatment. Especially a still living and breathing and – maybe most important – impishly grinning Bowie. He doesn’t quite suit this age of heart-on-sleeve, almost recreational emotion. Pre-legendary Lennon might not have felt altogether at home either. “Lennon at his best despised cheap sentiment,” wrote the American rock’n’roll journalist Lester Bangs days after the shooting, “and had to learn the hard way that once you’ve made your mark on history those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.”
The thought of David Bowie in any sort of cage dampens the spirit. His career has been all about change, sometimes extreme, often provocative. But as he closes in on 70 is he in danger of being made over into a national treasure? Or does he have still more surprises up his sleeve?
He has always dealt with his demons in more oblique ways than Lennon. (For all the joy our John brought to billions, you’d never have caught the singer of “I’m lonely, wanna die” putting out an album called Hunky Dory.) Maybe Bowie already has plans to make himself scarce again before The Next Day appears. And if he does hop back in his tin can to spend another ten years floating far above the world, I for one would gladly echo what he sang to his own avatar Major Tom on his first #1 hit: “Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you”.
Then again, what if the new album really is as good as Low…