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'A man who changed creativity:' Laurie Brown on David Bowie's legacy

Laurie Brown

On the anniversary of David Bowie's 15th studio album, Let's Dance, journalist and CBC Radio 2 host Laurie Brown looks back at the Starman’s continued legacy.

This is a story from the fifth issue of CBC Music Magazine. To download the full issue for iOS, click here. (For Android devices, click here.)

I was completely unprepared to meet David Bowie. Working for MuchMusic at the time, I was in Europe somewhere for an interview when I got a call to get on a Paris-bound plane: I had an interview with Bowie in 24 hours. I freaked, then headed to the airport. It was July 1987.

As I paced the hotel room, the cameraman set up. A fan of Bowie’s since his 1971 Hunky Dory album, I knew his music well yet still felt vastly unprepared. Then Bowie walked in, and suddenly everything was OK.

Friendly, charming, attentive — and hungry. Would I mind if he ordered room service and ate before we talked? So we sat, chatted and ate croque-monsieurs. He was in the second European leg of his Glass Spider tour, an immensely physical show; no wonder he was famished. The interview was a blur, but a real conversation. I swear he asked as many questions as I did.

When the 40 minutes ended, we talked about his show that evening. I mentioned that I didn’t know how I’d get back to the hotel afterward. Bowie told me to make my way backstage by the end of it, and he’d give me a lift.

The show was intense, the crowd huge in this outdoor venue on a perfect July night in Paris. Backstage, we saw Bowie’s limo waiting four feet away and, directly behind it, a bus for the dancers and musicians. Peter Frampton, Carlos Alomar, Charlie Sexton: what a lineup of guitar players. The show finished, and they all piled offstage. Bowie, with a towel around his neck, ducked into the limo and was gone. In mere moments the band, dancers, cameraman and I were speeding along behind him.

There was a contingent of Paris motorcycle cops that escorted our two vehicles along the highway into the heart of downtown. We were going fast. The cops were putting on a show for Bowie, riding side-saddle on their bikes, tapping on drivers’ windows to say “move it” with a nonchalance only the French can pull off. Everyone in the bus was cheering them on.

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That was the first time I met Bowie. I met him again and again over the years. Six interviews in all I think, and each time we met, our conversations deepened.

My phone rang, waking me up on Monday, Jan. 10, 2016. It was my dad telling me Bowie had died. I couldn’t quite take it in. As I hung up, I sat bolt upright in bed, shocked at the overwhelming sense of loss flooding through me.

You felt it, too. And now we are left to sort out why he meant so much to so many.

As the first super artist, Bowie was a man who changed creativity. He never simply released an album; instead, each artistic offering came as a fully realized world. Each had a look, a way of moving, a live tour that was as much theatre and dance as it was music; a filmic treatment on video that deconstructed the musical message to the point where we must call his videos avant-garde art. From mainstream to bleeding-edge experimental, from riffs on past artistic movements to exposing us to the next big thing — you could find these elements in everything he did.

His ability to contextualize what he was doing with historical references, be it Dadaism or the theatre aesthetic of Bertolt Brecht, meant he knew exactly what he was doing; that he had crafted every aspect with intention and meaning. That he could talk about his work so clearly, and see it against the backdrop of the art world, was an interviewer’s dream. I can’t think of another musician who did it as well. Always generous with his time and energy, attentive and respectful. He made me feel good about what I did.

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Bowie was never an overly emotive artist; there wasn’t an intimacy in his music that made you feel like you were peering into his heart. Instead, it felt like he was peering into ours, seeing the big picture that we couldn’t. So smart, really, because most of the time Bowie was leading us to dark, difficult places. If that creative and intellectual layering wasn’t swaddled around the existential messiness he wrote about, many of us who call him a musical hero might not have followed him down the rabbit hole. We could always count on Bowie to be dancing in the confusion, showing us what it looked and sounded like. “Turn and face the strange. Ch-ch-changes.” Yet, in person, he never appeared dark or brooding. A mask? Or did he channel all his dark into his art?

Bowie’s insistence on mining that of which we are most scared — sexuality, ego, aging, death — kept him vital and engaging as an artist. It’s also what compelled us to return to him again and again. He had an insatiable curiosity; he was a voracious, endlessly creative artist. His work was a kaleidoscope to the world. David Bowie was creativity squared.