On Sunday afternoon I was belatedly taking down the Christmas decorations whilst listening to the new Bowie album, Blackstar. I was contemplating the obsession with death on the two accompanying videos with Major Tom’s jewel-encrusted skull lying on a distant planet and an eyeless prophet trying to rise from his deathbed with memento mori scattered around the bleak roomset. Of course I didn’t realize that Bowie was talking about his own imminent demise – he used to sing Jacques Brel’s My Death often enough in concert for me not to be anxious. But come Monday morning, as a self-confessed Bowie tragic who had bought everything he ever recorded, seen him in concert 7 times and stood feet away from him at a Kentish Town Tin Machine concert, I joined all the other Bowie fans across the globe united in disbelief and a hope that this might be one last Bowie sleight of hand.
Much has been and will be written about his soaring, insistent, ever-shifting music, his multiple costumes (over 70 iconic designs in one year alone) his visionary stagecraft and his unfailing ability to control the media. But as a stage-struck teenager and future copywriter there was something else equally important for me: his lyrics. From the moment I heard the questioning otherness of Changes on the radio I was hooked. The words to The Bewlay Brothers channelling his half-brother’s schizophrenia, a theme he often returned to, still give me goosebumps.
And so it continued down the years. The melancholy beat of loss in Five Years, the tumbling alliterations on the Diamond Dogs album, the Clockwork Orange daggers on Outside, the enigmatic self-referencing of the late albums giving the lie to those who thought he never wrote from the heart. Many fans have described his music as the soundtrack of their lives. For me his lyrics often also provided the commentary.
Like all Bowiephiles I could go on and on (longer than The Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family even) but suffice it to say that his amazing zeugmatic, oxymoronic wordplay (pretentious, moi? as Bowie once self-deprecated), often inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique, continued to inspire and wrongfoot in equal measure right to the end.
So what’s all this got to do with an advertising blog – apart from the obvious influence Bowie has had on all forms of creative endeavour, commercial and otherwise? Well, in 1963, before leaving to pursue music and join the Beckenham arts laboratory, Bowie enjoyed a brief career in the creative department of Nevin D Hirst Advertising in London.
He would have made a great copywriter. But I’m very glad he didn’t.