Mon, 11 January 2016
David Bowie, Musician And Trendsetter
There is no doubt that among the history books holding the names of rock legends, the name of David Bowie is up there with the best of them.
A man who doesn’t just play the game by his own rules, but created the game itself and then ripped up the rules too.
He took on the prescribed format of musical output in the early seventies and almost single handedly changed it forever.
In this Bowie inspired Join Up Dots biography we take a look at how this unassuming man, born David Robert Jones in Brixton, South London on January 8th 1947, could at first struggle so badly to ignite the flame of success.
Mimicking the stars of the day, and stars of yesterday, unable to find his real voice, until stumbling on the very thing that would make him who he is today
And that thing was changes, the ability to reinvent himself, and freshen his sound, image and outlook at will, keeping all of us guessing as to his next move for the next forty years.
David’s start in life was about as normal as a child growing up in the United Kingdom in the 50’s could have expected to live.
His mother, Margaret Mary worked as a waitress, while his father, Haywood Stenton Jones, from Yorkshire, was a promotions officer for Barnardo’s a children charity.
Bowie attended Stockwell Infants School until he was six years old, where teachers considered him as a gifted and single-minded child, although not with obvious musical genius, and a singing voice only classed as adequate.
When David Bowie was a small child he was fascinated by music, and loved nothing more than tuning into the radio stations of the day to hear the scratchy sounds from some distant DJ in a basement far far away like so many other children.
But it was when he was thirteen, and encouraged by his older brother Terry, he picked up a saxophone and started making his own sounds that things started becoming more than a hobby.
Terry was nine years older, and inspired and influenced the young David greatly, as most older brothers do, exposing him to literature, rock music and the kind of influences that a thirteen year old child growing up in South London would have been unlikely to discover on their own.
David at first tried to teach himself the saxophone, but struggled with it, so made the bold decision to phone the top British saxophonist Ronnie Ross, who he had seen play in the West End of London, and asked for lessons.
Ronnie charged David £2.00 per lesson, which was more than this soon to be wealthy practicing rock star could hope to afford.
But this wouldn’t deter, young Davy Jones, and he got himself a job as a butcher’s delivery boy to ensure that he had the cash to allow the fortnightly lessons to occur.
Unfortunately, although a major part of setting the fledgling rock star on his way to super stardom, with his encouragement and support, David’s brother Terry was not to be in his day to day life for long.
Suffering with his own personal demons, the family had Terry committed to an institution fearing for his safety.
This no doubt had a huge impact on the young David Bowie, and although good in its intention haunted David for a good deal of his life, even becoming the topic of his song “Jump They Say” after Terry’s suicide many years later.
At the age of sixteen, David Bowie graduated from the technical high school he had attended in Bromley, only memorable for a fight he had with a school friend that left him with eyes different in colour to one another, and got his first job a commercial artist.
He joined as a Junior Visualiser /Paste up Artist for the Yorkshire based company Neven D Hirst.
This is a fascinating move for David to make, as although he was still playing for bands, and striving to break into music business in the evening, he still followed the path that most of us follow.
He left school and set about getting a job.
Is there anyway that we can break from the path that has been trod for generations before us? Even if we have greatness desperate to burst out from inside us?.
Probably not, but as we see time and time again on Join Up Dots, the ability to keep on pushing against the rules of conformity is what allows the great to become great.
Stopping ourselves from following the crowd, that leave school and enter the offices of the world just because they haven’t stopped to question why?
Well David, did just that and after only five months, knew in his heart of hearts that he had to take control of his life, if his dreams of working as a musician were to come true.
The bands he had performed with every night had cemented the belief that he had what it took, not necessarily to achieve the dizzying heights that he later achieved, but at least earning money doing what he loved.
Interestingly, crossing his path in these early days was another musician who would also go on to place his name indelibly in the record books, one Jimmy Page the guitarist of David Bowie’s band the Manish Boys.
Jimmy Paige of course become a global success with one of the most famous rock bands of all time Led Zeppelin.
Several singles were recorded and released during this period, but none could have been classed as anything but a learning curve. Allowing the young Bowie to experience a recording studio for the first time and hear his own voice played back to him.
Other than working with Jimmy Paige, the only dot on the Join Up Dots timelines that helps us to see the man that he later became, was when when he made the decision to change his name from Davy Jones, and replace his surname with the now recognizable Bowie, after the knife.
Davy Jones from the Monkees was riding the crest of the wave, with hits such as “Last Train To Clarksville”, and “Daydream Believer”, and David felt that this could be confusing to the record buying public, and ultimately could hold him back.
Did this make a huge difference, who can tell, but it was better than one of his other choices he made: Tom Jones.
It was certainly the first indication of the chameleon like character that has since gone on to characterize so much of his later work.
After recording, and performing with the bands, Bowie made the decision to go solo, and pursue a career on his own terms. He recorded his first solo album, which sunk without trace.
This was a crushing blow for David Bowie, and instead of working harder on the content he was intent to keep delivering to the world, the musician did something quite unexpected…but quite David Bowie like.
He decided to take a break from the music world, and headed to Scotland where for a period in 1967 he lived in a Buddhist monastery along with American musician Leonard Cohen.
As he says “”I was a terribly earnest Buddhist at the time I had stayed in their monastery and was going through all their exams, and yet I had this feeling that it wasn’t right for me. I suddenly realised how close it all was: another month and my head would have been shaved.”
So David left, and then even more bizarrely joined a group of mime artists, even starting his own group called Feathers.
Although this from the outside seems unusual, as we see on Join Up Dots everyday, a person has to try things that may not seem part of the master plan, to ultimately lead them to where they should be in life.
It is during these times, when it may seem haphazard and wasteful that most people absorb different ways of operating. Discovering skills within themselves, that they can utilise later in positions not remotely visible at that time.
And that is the case with David Bowie, as the added spirituality and theatricality become more evident in his work, as was displayed in his own classic song “Space Oddity” about a spaceman floating around about the earth.
Thanks to the BBC’s use of the song for their coverage of the US Moon landing in 1969, David Bowie had his first hit record. With the song hitting the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
What is extremely interesting is the state of mind of David Bowie at the time of writing. The words clearly show an individual lost, and forlorn about the future. No surprise after the failures of his previous musical efforts.
“Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” – shows the realization that there’s nothing he can do about all of the problems he sees in the world.
“Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear me Major Tom? – He’s lost communication with those on the ground (i.e. in reality).
David Bowie showed a window to his soul. He was not part of his previous life of domesticity in Bromley, and was neither part of the rock star lifestyle that he so craved.
Bowie was floating out in Space, on his own.
Slowly getting ready for the true moment that David Bowie blasted into our consciousness, and the televisions and radios across the world.
In 1973, the career that had stuttered and faltered for the last four years, exploded dramatically into life, as from that position floating above the world David returned to earth.
This time not as himself, but the androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust.
It signaled the start of the David Bowie fascination.
Where was the man, and where was the music?
Could one exist without the other?
Was the high camp fashion that he displayed on stage the true mark of David Bowie, or a curtain to hide behind, whilst the crowds surged, screamed and fainted in front him.
This was glam-rock at its peak, and quite literally anyone around at that time would be compared to the strutting, preening and bi-sexual pre-madonna that was 1973’s incarnation of David Bowie.
Even megastars such as T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, the flamboyant pianist from Middlesex Elton John, and the upwardly climbing Freddie Mercury were nothing, compared to what the world was witnessing with his classic “Starman” and “Ziggy Stardust”
David Bowie was no longer floating high above the world on his own.
To the teenagers and music buying public, he was the world, and with his backing band The Spiders Of Mars, the world waited with baited breath to see what they would deliver next.
And David Bowie delivered…but once again not in the way most expected, or wished for.
Instead of setting off on a world-tour, and crushing the charts with new albums and singles, he announced that he was retiring from touring and that Ziggy Stardust and of course the Spiders were no more.
As he announced whilst on stage “Of all the shows on the tour, this one will stay with us the longest because not only is this the last show of the tour, but it is the last show we will ever do.” This surprised everyone in the house – not least the members of his band. The hysteria was over almost as soon as it had started.
Which looking back, was an amazingly brave decision to make, but one that showed that David Bowie was in control, and knew what was right for his career.
Instead of saying “this is what you want, so this is what you’ll get”, he quite firmly, and with huge confidence stated “You will get what I want, and when I want to give it to you!”
This in no short measure ensured that the mystic that has grown up around David Bowie was started off in the perfect manner.
He was not going to give an inch. And we are no doubt glad that he took that stance, as his music was becoming more creative and experimental because of it. He had created the freedom to explore what he was capable off.
And so began his personal odyssey from country to country, city to city, playing and recording with such eclectic names as John Lennon, Brian Eno from Roxy Music and even Luther Vandross,
It was whilst in New York jamming with John Lennon that the riff which became the iconic Fame was first heard, and led to David Bowie’s first American number one.
And his later move to Berlin in Germany, harnessed even greater creative imagery and unexpected musical releases with the classic stripped back “Low” and the Eno produced “Heroes”, made whilst he lived in semi seclusion, painting, studying art and recording with Brian Eno.
“Heroes” was marketed by RCA with the catchphrase, “There’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie…” which is very apt, and something that Bowie would have done well to remember in later years.
It is true that Bowie likes nothing more than going in quite different directions than what the world expects.
Throughout his career he has explored the world of acting from his early roles in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, through to “Absolute Beginners And “Labyrinth” where he acted beside a series of Jim “The Muppet” Henson’s creations, and even a three month run in the Elephant Man on Broadway.
None of the roles or performances would be classed as landmarks in his career. In fact many would argue they were just a distraction to where he should have been placing his attention. On his music. The creativity being focused on areas of interest to David, more to his loyal followers.
What becomes a truth with David Bowie, is when he appears to move towards the obvious routes to success, he becomes a pale inferior version of himself.
Following the global success of the Nile Rodgers produced album “Lets Dance” in 1983, he appeared influenced by the Music of the time. And one thing for sure being in Duran Duran is never going to inspire the same level of performance as working the bars, and studying the architecture in Berlin or other such locations.
David Bowie needs to be off the radar, to be truly authentic.
He needs to be tapping into the yet to be seen musical movements, instead of being the leader of the popular and current ones.
And so for the next few years David Bowie produced work that was neither memorable nor commercially successful in the same way as his earlier successes.
He was falling further behind the crowd, and lost between the teenagers now grown up who adored him in the seventies, and the 80’s versions focused on Wham, Duran, and Rick Astley.
Throughout the next ten years, Bowie’s musical career was in decline, with the albums Tin machine and Tin Machine II being commercial and public failures.
David Bowie was finished.
He had achieved everything that the 13 year old saxophone learning kid could have ever dreamed off and more. He had inspired the world to believe. He had created a new generation of musicians who studied his back catalogue with a religious fervor.
He disappeared. Retreating from the limelight, he closed the door on his New York apartment and became David Jones again. Father, husband, music legend, and enjoying retirement.
For over ten years, other than a few sightings David Bowie was invisible to the world.
We had the memories of past glories and nothing else.
But as we have seen throughout the years, Bowie returns stronger when on his own terms. When he is in control to what the world will receive. That is when he delivers, and in 2013 after ten years in the wilderness “The Next Day” David Bowie’s 24th album shook the world.
The Spaceman, the Clown, The Alien, The Smooth Groover, the enigma that is David Bowie was back where he belongs. In the ears, and stereos of the world. Saying things the way that only David Bowie can.
A musician, a mystery, a creative, a leader, a decision maker, a controller, David Bowie has learnt through all the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs what leads to success. And that quite simply is being himself.
A lesson that for so many of us is the hardest one to learn.