THE BEAUTY OF BOWIE

~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, December 10th 2012

On our cover is David Bowie, a serial innovator who has recently pioneered something really radical for a rock star: a quiet retirement. He lives in New York, takes his daughter to school, and surfaces only to correct the odd bit of misinformation. And yet the less he does, the larger he looms. His song "Heroes", only a minor hit at the time (1977), is now ubiquitous; no big sports event is complete without its delicious sense of doomed romance. Our cover shot is an out-take from the "Heroes" album shoot by Masayoshi Sukita, never used before in a magazine, as far as we know.

The Seventies have had a hard time lately, but Bowie’s run of LPs then, from "Hunky Dory" and "Ziggy Stardust" to "Low" and "Heroes", stands as surely the second greatest body of work in British pop, behind the Beatles; and the second best by any solo singer, behind Bob Dylan. Bowie’s range was phenomenal, encompassing pop, folk, hard rock, art rock, soul, funk and electronica. And he was no mere chameleon. The ability to excel in several genres demands courage, skill and application. Bowie studied mime, and to see him in concert was to marvel at his stillness. His acting brought mixed results, but when he sang, he could create drama just by staying a moment behind the beat. His songs have lasted because they are well made—great tunes, punchy rhythms, sparkling riffs—and they speak to the spirit of the age. What the Beach Boys are to surfing, Bowie is to neurosis.

If his ear was exemplary, his eye was exceptional too, as Matthew Sweet shows in The Line of Beauty, and as the V&A should confirm with its exhibition drawing on Bowie’s own archive. Forty years on from "Aladdin Sane", we may finally agree on how to say his name: it rhymes with "doughy", not "wow-ee". In a BBC poll naming the 100 Greatest Britons in 2002, Bowie came 29th. He might do even better now.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life and a rock critic for the Mail on Sunday