Arts

Collaborators and aficionados celebrate David Bowie's life and legacy in Dublin

This month marks the fourth anniversary of David Bowie's death. Richard Purden speaks to Bowie authors and allies about his life and legacy ahead of the Dublin Bowie Festival next week

The annual Dublin Bowie Festival will celebrate the life and legacy of the late music star
Richard Purden

"THERE'S so much to be said about David Bowie and now even more since his death," considers Professor Will Brooker, whose latest book Why Bowie Matters suggests that the cultural icon is an example to us all.

"Bowie wasn't the greatest painter but he threw himself in," he says. "He was the best example of not being afraid to do the things you're not the best at."

Brooker made news headlines in 2015 when he spent a year as David Bowie, transforming himself into characters such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, adopting their look while absorbing the culture Bowie drew on to fuel his creations.

Brooker also returned to teenage pursuits such as singing and painting as "a sign of commitment" to the project but adds that "in the spirit of Bowie I learned as much about myself while studying the singer as a concept".

Significantly, it was the 'boxy suit' pop-star persona Bowie embraced in 1983 for Let's Dance that Brooker most enjoyed replicating: "I got a blonde quiff, spray tan, white teeth and took my brother to Cladridge's where Bowie launched Let's Dance on St Patrick's Day in 1983.

"I was spending money that I didn't have buying expensive cocktails while handing tips to doormen and taxi drivers. I was living out my fantasy of 1983 on a personal level."

However, author John O'Connell suggests that the 1980s was the decade where the singer "got it spectacularly wrong" in his publication Bowie's Books, which explores the list of 100 books the singer curated for the 2013 V&A Exhibition, David Bowie Is, as 'the most important and influential' on his life and work.

Mod culture and various youth movements proved to be a vital source. During childhood Bowie often looked to his older half-brother, Terry, for motivation: a definitive experience was when Terry handed him a copy of On The Road by Jack Kerouac to read at the age of 12.

O'Connell writes: "After finishing it, Bowie started painting and asked his father if he could learn the saxophone. For Bowie, it was about pulling fragments of various art-forms together to see what happens and to create new meanings.

"There was an intellectual wing and a rarified aspect to mod in addition to it being a working-class youth movement. Mod was short for 'modernism' and Bowie embraced that in keeping one step ahead and not falling prey to nostalgia by adopting various forms of 20th-century European art".

While both O'Connell and Brooker acknowledge that the 1980s is not a favoured decade among the singer's most devoted fans, it's fair to say he eventually won back much of the respect and kudos he had traded for global mainstream success.

"Nobody expected an album like Blackstar by this 69-year-old man," says O'Connell of Bowie's final album, which was released on January 8 2016 – his 69th birthday – just two days prior to his death from cancer.

"There were times when he needed a bit of money but he retained an interest in what was new for the most part, he was mod in the way that he was always interested in clothes, fashion and looking good even towards the very end of his life."

Bowie's mod beginnings have received more notice since his death in 2016 suggests Phil Lancaster, who was the drummer in the star's pre-fame (and name change) blues trio Davy Jones and the Lower Third.

"There seem to be different kinds of fans: some are into Ziggy Stardust and that's about it but others go further back and celebrate those early years," says Lancaster, who will be appearing at the Dublin Bowie Festival, which kicks off next Wednesday.

"Many of the songs from that period are valued among those particular fans."

Lancaster first met Bowie at La Gioconda coffee bar in Denmark Street.

"I walked in and asked if they knew a guy called Davy Jones, they said 'yeah; you just walked past him, he's on the payphone by the door' and there was this tall, skinny guy with grown out bleached hair, it was half-and-half with roots growing out and down to his shoulders.

"I introduced myself and we clicked straight away on music, literature and so on. He was always ready for a laugh. I got the job from that meeting and never did audition for the band."

It was during his time in the Lower Third that Davy Jones became David Bowie, in the autumn of 1965.

"We had a meeting one day and David announced 'I'm going to call myself Bowie,' it was no event at the time, but historically very much so. From that point on it wasn't to be Dave or Davy, it had to be 'David'."

The Dublin Bowie Festival is an ever-growing success celebrating the assorted facets of Bowie's career such as the Berlin Trilogy. It's a tenuous title as there are various recording locations and influences beyond Berlin on those long-players but Germany's capital and largest city is perhaps the glue that holds Low, "Heroes" and Lodger together.

For Brooker, it's those albums that were and still are divisive among fans, such as Low, that are among the many reasons that Bowie continues to matter.

"For the record company and those who wanted to make money out of him [Low] was a worrying departure but it's now one of his most highly regarded albums.

"It was bold but he needed to make that record for his own mental health, it's a more introspective and quieter album made after the changes he went through in the early to mid-70s.

"Low is a wonderful work of art from the album cover to the title which references the fact he was keeping a low profile."

John O' Connell agrees that it's the "impressionist, haunting and isolating qualities" on Low and "Heroes" that captures "the romance of East Berlin and that sense of how to be an individual in a collective society, 'how do you hang on to yourself?', as Bowie might say."

Bowie's long-term producer and friend Tony Visconti adds: "I know that the b-side of Low is not a big favourite with some fans, but we had the most fun creating it with Brian Eno. The rest of the band already left for home when we started the b-side."

Bowie's impact continues partly because no other popular artist went from making a string of definitive hits to challenging his audience in the way that he did, particularly in the late 1970s. On Low, the affecting Subterraneans remains one of Bowie's most atmospheric pieces, closing an album that many now regard as his finest and most enduring work.

Its producer suggests there may be one final surprise regarding Low. "Subterraneans was originally recorded by David whilst making The Man Who Fell To Earth film. It was five semitones higher and quite a bit faster. I can't remember whose idea it was but I dropped the tape pitch and speed until it felt right.

"Then we proceeded to overdub the vocals and other parts at that slower speed. It was never archived at the slower speed, so if someone remixes Low in the future, if I'm not around, then they're in for a surprise."

:: Tony Visconti and Phil Lancaster are both appearing at the Dublin Bowie Festival, see Dublinbowiefestival.ie for more information. Why Bowie Matters by Will Brooker and Bowie's Books by John O' Connell are both available now

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