Chameleonic is a word which often crops up when discussing the work of David Bowie. His various personas are as integral to his career as the music itself. However, these roles were more than wardrobe changes. They revealed another aspect of his character, one more fixed and permanent, and that was his deep, abiding love of popular music’s many forms, a love built on an equally deep appreciation of those forms. No mere imitator, Bowie was in fact one of rock’s true, rare scholars.
Bowie, born David Jones, would’ve scoffed at this moniker. He certainly rejected other labels. Perhaps an explanation is in order. I don’t mean a scholar in a traditional sense with its connotations of stuffiness, pedantry and abstraction. Instead Bowie’s obvious instinct for pop – the man could pen a hit – was balanced by an understanding of its forms and traditions. Moreover, when he spoke on these matters he could enrich a viewer’s grasp of a song or style.
Such nuanced understanding of music can be seen in the Pixies’ documentary “Gouge“. As the other talking heads struggle to express the importance of the Boston four-piece, Bowie nails the band’s sound and influence like your favourite professor. Succinct, accurate and clear, his case for the Pixie’s music goes beyond the band to creative practice itself.
His gift for encapsulating a performer’s significance wasn’t lost even when he had a personal connection. At the end of the clip below Bowie sums up Lou Reed’s impact on glam rock and more broadly sexual identity in rock. He doesn’t stumble or rely on simply a personal perspective. He presents Lou Reed’s significance in terms taken from Reed’s own work.
A sense of musical history is also brought to bear when discussing the guitar style of Peter Frampton, the guitarist from bands Humble Pie and The Herd. Bowie places Frampton’s playing into a particular tradition – namely English RnB. Admittedly, you could take issue with Bowie here as you could with any categorisation of music. But the point is Bowie’s willingness to see music from a broader perspective. He talks of tradition as something credible without even using the word. Music’s past, trajectory and forms appeared to guide this creative decisions as well as, I would argue, others he made.
Viewing Bowie in this way allows us to see his work in a different light. More than a musical shape-shifter, morphing through various styles, this experimentation can be viewed as more a celebration and dialogue with rock’s form. Other artists have drawn on rock’s past, recycling and adopting present and past styles. But Bowie’s sensibilities, revealed in his interviews, highlight an appreciation grounded in pop’s varied roots. His knowledge of this richness was as much a part of his material as the music and the masks.
Feature image: k_tjaaa