A Love Letter to the Language of Bowie

I’m not usually one for outpourings of collective grief on social media. It usually feels cold, impersonal and insincere, as if the writer simply feels the need to throw their voice into the ring for fear of coming across as unfeeling or being forgotten altogether.

The unexpected death of David Bowie yesterday provoked an avalanche of social media mourning the likes of which I’d never seen before. We couldn’t help ourselves. It was endless.

However, as pointed out by my good friend David and my hyper-intelligent transatlantic alter ego Natalia, this somehow felt more weighty. We weren’t just saying things; we meant them. We were all listening to the songs posted up by others, appreciating the photos, reading through the interviews and essays. We were sat at home in stupid tears, absolutely failing to do anything approaching work. It somehow felt like we’d all lost someone who had truly had some input into our lives.

How can it be that people all across the globe felt so close to a strange-looking kid from Brixton?

It seems to me that no matter what you’re into, Bowie had done it, and done it well. While people were quoting the lyrics from Space Oddity and Heroes, the most enduring of Bowie’s unapologetically commercial pop songs, just as many were talking about the epic, avant-garde soundscapes on Low which found him scatting in a made-up language over Brian Eno’s brooding productions. For every shared clip of the spectacularly weird Henson-directed 80s kids film Labyrinth, in which Bowie’s prominent testicles appeared alongside an array of bizarre puppets and therefore awoke the confused sexuality of many a terrified teen, there was a clip of the singer’s (brilliant) turn in the Ricky Gervais comedy Extras, where he is portrayed as a man so dedicated to crafting a great song that he listens to the outpouring of a character’s fears and concerns only to turn to a conveniently-placed piano and write a song that mocks him while he sits right there. Film students cited The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Prestige; dancers talked about his experiences with Lindsay Kemp; visual artists lauded the video for Ashes to Ashes. Everyone had something to talk about.

Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Strasse
A man lost in time
Near KaDeWe
Just walking the dead
– Where Are We Now?

As a person who enjoys wordplay and weirdness, there’s a lot to love in Bowie’s oeuvre. He took on characters and shrugged them off throughout his 50-year career, discarding one corpse and slipping into another body before you could figure out what had really gone on. He created whole worlds inside each persona, letting his audience squint and peer in through the cracks he’d cut with his music.

Bowie was a voracious reader, and his reverence for writers and their methods shows through in the way he structured and created his own songs. In Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor, Bowie shows his use of “cut ups”, a Dadaist concept popularised by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin wherein lines or even words from a text are snipped and isolated then rearranged to form a new text. He explains that (at that time, at least) he had only used the technique to write a couple of songs, but instead used it for “igniting anything that might be in [his] imagination.” By using the method with diaries, he told Yentob, he’d found out a lot about himself and his own past. “You can often find very interesting attitudes to look into.”

Here are we one magical moment
Such is the stuff from
where dreams are woven
Bending sound
Dredging the ocean lost in my circle
Here am I
Flashing no colour tall in this room
overlooking the ocean
– Station to Station

It’s this microscopic attention to different perspectives that made Bowie’s character creations so affecting. He didn’t just write people; he became them. This may have had a hugely negative impact on his mental health (before he retired the Ziggy Stardust character, he found himself unable to separate David from Ziggy; while in the grips of a cocaine addiction as the Thin White Duke he made a number of pro-Fascist statements, of which he was endlessly embarrassed), but it also gave him some of the best art he would ever create, and proved massively enduring as a masterclass in how to write. Bowie’s use of cut ups in influenced lyricists Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke; the latter utilized the technique when writing Kid A, to the extent that he would put single lines into a hat and pull them out at random to craft the songs.

But for all his highbrow methods, Bowie always had his pop sensibilities at heart, and knew that no message reaches its mark if its language is unaccessible. His words are achingly simple, his sentences never any longer than they need to be. He sang of the dark sides of fame and addiction without begging for sympathy, and he did so by describing them in such basic terms that every single person, with their own, unique problems, can relate to them. Who alive isn’t given pause for thought when he sings “I never done good things / I never done bad things”? Who doesn’t feel the hairs twitch on the back of their neck? Bowie knew that a total lack of melodrama is the most effective tool when talking about dramatic subjects. Like a Mike Leigh movie, he showed his characters coping with the horrors of life in stoic, quietly heroic ways. On his most poignant songs he used a resigned passivity to describe loneliness, pain and even encroaching mental illness.

Look out my window and what do I see
A crack in the sky
and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they’re
here to stay.
– Oh! You Pretty Things

And yet it isn’t just the dark side of life that was treated this way. Bowie songs often celebrated the sheer joy of being alive, of being young and silly and passionate and full of it all. As he says in John, I’m Only Dancing, “life’s a well-thumbed machine”. He revelled in the experience of living and by describing it in plain terms, invited us all to revel in it too. He made greatness seem manageable not only by the way he steered his career but by the way he sang about becoming more than what we are. He grasped at positivity and hope and presented it as something we could all cling to. He painted great bravery as something we could all achieve; he made us believe that we truly could be heroes, if just for one day.

And he also knew when to throw out a real firecracker of nonsense when it totally fit.

Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird.
– Moonage Daydream

Grown adults all over the world might still be collapsing into fits of ridiculous weeping today. We’ve lost an icon. It’s the end of an era. All these cliches and more. And yet we already know that Bowie’s work has an enduring quality that can’t be taken away. He may be gone, but there are 26 studio albums, dozens of videos, movies and cameos and interviews and performances and iconic images and more that won’t ever fade. When the tide of hurt recedes a little, there’ll be a lot on the ocean floor to look at.

But, for now, Let’s Dance.

They got a message from the Action Man
“I’m happy. Hope you’re happy, too.
I’ve loved. All I’ve needed: love.
Sordid details following.”
– Ashes to Ashes