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Where Would We Be Without David Bowie?

Without him, there'd be no punk, no Kanye West, no U2, and no you.
January 11, 2016, 4:19pm

From 'The Rise of David Bowie: 1972–1973.' All photos by Mick Rock/courtesy of Taschen Gallery

Without him, there would be no punk, no glam, no post-punk, no hair metal, no goth, no Brit-pop, no new wave, no freak folk, no new romantics, no (as we know it) blue eyed soul, no (as we know it) art-pop. Most of the original genres we love and most of the revivals of the genres we love would be gone, too. No glitter, no too tight pants, no wonderful, wonderful haircuts (and therefore no Nick Cave or Robert Smith). No heels on men, hell, possibly less heels on women. No Kate Bush and no Maxwell. Without Heroes, no U2, no Coldplay, no Arcade Fire, no blessed and absurd grandeur to get us through the prosaic. No Pulp—who would have taught Jarvis to move? No Talk Talk. No Blue Nile or Japan. No Labyrinth, The Hunger, or The Linguini Incident. While we're talking about the vision, the humor and, forgive me, lust for life: no Zoolander. No Bauhaus or Smiths; without a slinky and elfin arm around Mick Ronson while singing "Starman" on Top of the Pops, there's no Morrissey, Marc Almond, Boy George, or George Michael. No Outkast or Kanye West, I'd be willing to bet, and I'd be willing to bet they'd agree. Iggy Pop would've died or found that just crawling through glass tends to yield diminishing returns. Nile Rodgers maybe (probably) would be a footnote in his own coke dream. Eno would have disappeared into atmospherics and useless art.

Maybe not. Maybe not to all of this. Maybe Scott Walker or Bryan Ferry or somebody I've never heard of or an alternate-reality still-living Marc Bolan would have stepped into the absence and all would have been exactly as it turned out after all. And didn't it turn out fine? I mean, the music. The world is still entirely fucked, but wasn't it nice to have David Bowie for the time we did. And isn't Blackstar a lovely note to rest after? Even if you weren't a fan—I was certainly late to that particular party—your band, your haircut, your life probably would be far worse without him. Of course there's no way of knowing. Thank God.

David Bowie has died and for minutes, the internet equivalent of eternity, nobody believed it. A mix of well-earned skepticism and childlike wishful thinking kept the hoax talk going, up until his son Duncan Jones confirmed his death via Twitter. And, at the risk of mawkish superstition, wasn't the brief moment of showmanship, the hope that this was just another false retirement, perfectly apt? Right after his 69th birthday? Right after releasing his best album in years? Everyone who'd dismissed him as an aging rocker had started eating their words and pretending to have been along for the ride all along. It was like Bowie released one final bit of misdirection to remind us how it ought to be done and then, with all of us doing our best to catch up with him one more time, he was gone.


David Bowie was a singular songwriter, a sophisticate who made oddballs feel cosmopolitan, an aesthete who rarely resorted to mere tastefulness, a science fiction unto himself and fantasist, a dream and always so very dreamy. From his early success (after years of striving) with Space Oddity in 1969, through the glam and Berlin years of the 70s, up till the, in immediate hindsight prescient, stunner that is Blackstar, Bowie was allowed by grace (divine, spiritual, secular) to change, if not the world, enough worlds. I'm a cynic—often cruel, really—and I regularly scoff at outpourings of grief from strangers. But I'm wrong when I do. Especially in cases such as this, where so much of the man's music seemed specifically designed to offer solace. For all his love of Nietzsche, Bowie didn't make art with an expectation of strength from the listener. Maybe a hope for fortitude, maybe a willingness to give the listener a little push forward, maybe a bit of archness in delivery (nobody batted an eye at the idea of him as aristocracy after all), but it was music free of contempt.

He was aware of the effect he had on music, reveled in it, and never stopped being affected by what was around him, be it Little Richard, Scott Walker, drum and bass, or Kendrick Lamar. He wasn't a chameleon; he just listened, made the materials at hand his own. His art wasn't sentimental or maudlin, so I'll spare his memory too much of that (though if you'd like to be sentimental or maudlin, do so with gusto and don't let anyone on social media shame you from it). But David Bowie's music, along with being hilarious and dark and, yes, sophisticated, was enduringly kind. And it's his music, his personas, his artifice and his art that we're talking about here. I didn't know the man and, men being what they are, maybe I'd feel differently if I did. But I love his influence. I love what he's leaving behind in his wake. It's is a gift; he wanted us to take it. So start a band, listen to David Bowie, any era you like, and steal with abandon.

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Check out more of Mick Rock's photos of David Bowie and buy the book.