A year later, I still can’t quite believe that David Bowie is dead.
When the news came through back at the beginning of the year I hadn’t even gotten around to listening to Black Star, his final album. I was still lost in the first few weeks of being a parent, the days and nights were interchangeable, life was about trying to make it through the next few hours. I saw it on the Guardian, having hauled myself into work. I felt like going home again. It was a bolt through my heart.
Mere days before I had been swaying around the living room, the winter sun streaming through the bay windows, my son wrapped tight in my arms, his gurgles of half sleep being smothered by the sound of Absolute Beginners through the stereo. The ba-ba-baoo chorus felt like a comfort blanket being draped over me; it was going to be all right. Whatever else happened there would be David Bowie.
And then there wasn’t; and then there was again.
My son, at the time, had an odd looking star shaped man with dangling legs, a mirror in his stomach and various squeaking appendages. It looked like a late sixties comic book inter-dimensional creature, the sort that would get lost in New York and accidentally demolish a couple of blocks before being calmed with acid tabs.
‘Look,’ my wife says to the boy, ‘it’s your star man.’
‘It’s David Bowie,’ I exclaim and launch into Starman. Over the next few weeks the spirit of David Bowie, trapped in a suckled child’s toy, waggled about while I tunelessly sang my son his hit singles up until Ashes to Ashes. It was an odd way to pay tribute to the man who so singularly sound tracked my teenage life. No, more than that: Bowie’s music showed me what was possible and how it was perfectly acceptable to stretch and cajole an art-form into something that fitted your unique vision, provided you had absolute mastery of in the first place. It has been something I have been failing to do ever since, but at least he gave me the inspiration needed to try.
I am trying to ensure my son understands this too. I am trying to live out my failed musical fantasies through him.
For Christmas, my wife gave me a Stephen Collins print where a baby is being cared for by its Dad. Dad decides to put some music on, but rather than something age appropriate he thinks the Fall would be more fun. The baby has to be talked down from a crying fit by the stuffed penguin it is cuddling, left to wistfully dream of a future where modern music will terrify and annoy the older generation. Every time I read it, I chuckle, not only because Collins’ art if fantastic, but because I recognise myself so clearly in the strip.
‘Listen to this, it’s brilliant, if a little heavy!’
My son whacks his drum over and over and I think he’s a genius, the next John Bonham. And then he thumps a wooden car against the glass coffee table repeatedly. He just likes smashing things.
Still, I look forward to the days in the future when we will sit down together and I will say, ‘listen to this, it’s important.’ And he will, no doubt, roll his eyes disparagingly, wondering what all the fuss is about.
I bought a copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen in my early twenties, on the strength of its reputation, and then, a few years later, acquired a copy of Death of a Ladies Man. The former I found lyrically interesting, but frequently a little dull; the latter felt a muddy, over-produced mess with occasional glimpses of fizz. I struggled to understand what all the fuss was about. I guess, in the end, I was simply too young to appreciate his brilliance and uniqueness.
A friend of mine and I bonded over just the mention of Leonard Cohen’s name. This was back when I was making a point of not really having friends at work because it was easier to separate my real, often drunken, frequently miserable, always pretentious self and the artifice of normality I presented in the workplace. She was moved to sit opposite me and it was immediately clear we had lots in common, but it wasn’t prepared to drop my guard until I overheard her talking enthusiastically about the National, and comparing the lead singer’s vocal style to Cohen, before adding: ‘Of course no-one is really like Leonard Cohen, he’s just otherworldly.’
By this time I was immersing myself in Cohen’s back catalogue and was coming to the same decision myself; the reason I’d struggled to really connect to him when younger is because there aren’t really any reference points. Sure, he’s singing complex lyrics, but then so does Bob Dylan. Yes, he’s essentially an acoustic troubadour who occasionally borrows a bigger band set-up, but so are countless others. Underneath that, the lyrical eye, the meticulousness of the song messages, the bleak, over-looked humour, are all so much more than anyone else.
Although, in fairness, aside from Songs of... it wasn’t until Old Ideas in 2011 that he finally managed to get the production of a record right, striking just the right notes between acoustic and band, perfectly underplayed without being overly simplistic.
Unlike Bowie, Cohen’s complexity means he is unlikely to have been the theme tune to many teenagers’ lives, but that doesn’t mean it fails to inspire passions. Years ago, my then girlfriend and I had been at a festival in Kent watching Neil Young. It was only a one day thing, so it was midnight and was were sat in the car waiting for the traffic to begin to move. As one of the first people to have arrived, we were going to be one of the last out, that was clear. It was a hot evening, and we sat with the windows down, trying not to fall asleep.
The car next to us was playing Cohen. Eventually, Hallelujah came on and the volume was cranked up to the max. The windows were rolled up, but you could still hear the music, that stretched vocal, cracking the tinny speakers. A joyous baritone of regret subverted by static.
The couple began to kiss to the rhythm of the song. Their embrace became increasingly passionate until the seats were reclined and, after a moment’s pause, long enough for a tugged fumble, the car back to gently rock on its wheels. As the song reached its climax I expected a hand to slap against the steam forming on the window glass. It didn’t. Slowly the car came to a rest, but the couple didn’t reappear.
Against the slew of celebrity deaths throughout 2016 these are the two which struck me the hardest. It wasn’t just the surprise of Bowie’s or the inevitability of Cohen’s, but the beauty in their deaths which caused a tightening of the chest, a welling at the eyes. Both were able to release last testaments, final pieces of music mere days before they died. Bowie’s Black Star was one his most challenging and original albums. Cohen’s You Want it Darker offered the final bites of wisdom from a life well lived, the last words were had. Both of them had found a creative patch that was almost the strongest they had ever had.
Not many people have the privilege, to know the end is approaching and to be able to say something final about life. That usually only happens in bad fiction, as the family gathers around the deathbed, the child leans in to half-hear the gasped final testament, misunderstood and lied about to the grandchildren for ever more. Real life is almost always crueller, snatching people away unexpectedly or in agony. Prince didn’t beat real life. Nor did Victoria Wood, or George Michael, or Steve Dillon, or Ronnie Barker, or Alan Rickman, or Carrie Fisher, or Jimmy Perry, or Robert Vaughan, or Gene Wilder, or Muhammed Ali, or Harper Lee or god knows how many others. Bowie and Cohen cheated real life and they cheated bad fiction. They were able to create something that lasts, that can be slowly unpeeled and, when the grief alleviates, can be finally understood. Well, that is a thing of wonder to be treasured indeed.