Archive for January 12, 2016

Bowie’s true genius was his generosity

There is something both comforting and pointless in the reams of articles being written following the death of David Bowie from cancer, and I am well aware that I am simply adding to the pile.

But short of the formal obituaries (and even they will be found wanting, such is the scale of their task), no single essay can grasp the breadth of the greatness of one of Britain’s foremost artists, and it would be foolish to even try to do so.

Instead we are left to sift through the remains of a staggering career to see what it is we can take into the future, and for me, it is the fact that it was Bowie’s artistic generosity that truly made him great.

Listening back to over fifty years of his music in the last 36 hours it became even more apparent – in short, he let others be brilliant, and in doing so he shone even more himself.

Possessed of a voice whose emotional power increased exponentially the closer he came to the edges of his vocal range, he was a natural solo artist, but even then he was never a man to go it alone. He always chose to include others.

At almost every point in his career, he generously allowed others not just to stand in the shadow of his vision, but to bask in its spotlight.

In the seventies it was Mick Ronson, whose slashing guitars and piercing melodies were a counterpoint to Bowie’s decadent alien rock star persona.

Later in that decade he entrusted the mixing board to Brian Eno, not just allowing him to twiddle the knobs but to introduce the full spectrum of his knowledge of electronica and technology.

He was no stranger to the other side of the console either, producing seminal and wildly different works by Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and making them musically immortal in the process.

And in 1981 there was the remarkable collaboration with Queen that produced Under Pressure, an instant classic powered by a simple bass riff, a watertight rhythm section and a surprisingly complex arrangement layered on top.

Perhaps inspired by that rhythmic success, he allowed the riffing of Nile Rodgers and the thundering drumming of Tony Thompson to take centre stage for Let’s Dance.

And when Bowie turned his back on commercial success and formed Tin Machine, he turned to Reese Garbels, a breathtaking versatile guitarist; while the albums may not have been great, one can never doubt the artistic ambition.

Even Ricky Gervais was allowed to bask in the glow of his brilliance – the Extras clip of Bowie’s jam about his character is funny, but it would be far less so if it wasn’t for Gervais’s superb reacting.

But for me the defining moment of Bowie’s artistic generosity was etched in eternity at the Point Depot in my hometown of Dublin during the recording of A Reality Tour that ultimately became a live album and film.

Amid the hi-hats and finger-clicking of the intro, you can hear him say “go girl” as he hands proceedings over to bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey for Under Pressure.

Many other artists would be loathe to share the limelight with a mere sidewoman or backing musician, and those with less courage would choose the safety of faithfully recreating the original over trying something new.

But given that he started out in free jazz, it’s hardly surprising that Bowie gives her the room and space to express herself. They perform the duet as equals, and in fact they had done so many times since she joined his band in 1995.

What follows is amazing – so much so that one almost forgets that it was Freddie Mercury who made the song famous with Bowie, and not Dorsey, such is the power of her performance.

A hugely accomplished session musician and artist in her own right, she has perhaps never gotten the recognition her talent deserves outside of the circles of professional music and Bowie fans.

But during that duet there is no doubt that her star matches that of Bowie.

And if there is one tiny thing that I can take with me from a half-century of his work, it is that – we should never be afraid to collaborate, to allow others to have their moment, to listen to ideas that we might otherwise not hear.

It is that generosity of spirit that makes the difference between achieving something alone – in art, in sport, in business, in life – and doing something valuable and memorable together that resonates with others.

If you’re in any doubt, listen to Bowie singing with Gail Ann Dorsey again.

Love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves.

- Queen and David Bowie, Under Pressure