David Bowie's legacy

I count the night I spoke to David Bowie as my best interview as a rookie journalist. Now, 21 years later, I know it was a privilege.

I had stayed up till 3am, repeatedly testing my micro-cassette tape recorder to make sure it would not fail, well, under pressure.

The artist, then 48, was patient with a fumbling novice and displayed more class than I had ever encountered (even now )in a human being. He had last performed here in 1983 and was rumoured to have refused to return to Singapore because he disagreed with the ban on the sale of chewing gum.

He vigorously quashed that rumour, revealing that he had, in fact, honeymooned in Singapore for three days with his then new bride, supermodel Iman.

David Bowie was a pop and cultural icon. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

He talked about how he had set abuzz a fledgling Internet community, whose many college-age users wondered why he had performed Nirvana's Man Who Sold The World during his Los Angeles concert, when really it was his song that the late Kurt Cobain had turned into an unplugged classic.

I will never forget his rich, deep baritone, his easy laughter and how kind he was to what must have seemed to him childish questions, including those about his son, Zowie Bowie (aka Duncan Jones), who was then in university and keen to dissociate himself from his famous dad.

The senior was, in addition to being a superstar, truly the coolest cat I had ever met. So when a colleague directed me to news of his death, I went numb.

I never knew him personally, yet such was his impact on me that I felt as if I had lost someone special. No doubt many others relate to that feeling, as social media filled with grieving RIP posts and favourite Bowie moments. In his Brixton hometown, people sang his songs in front of his mural.

To teen-fangirl me, Bowie was as real as the sky.

His music informed my growing up: When I was down, it was that bass line hook from Under Pressure I found irrepressible. For inspiration, I put Heroes on repeat. Long before Swatch commercials repopularised Changes, I had pinned up the lines: "And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/ They're quite aware of what they're going through." Those words salved my growing pains.

They also appear at the start of John Hughes' 1985 classic, The Breakfast Club, a movie about teens grappling with the status quo.

As I grew up, I responded to what he stood for, rediscovering Bowie as an innovator whose work pushed others to be creative, especially in situations that unsettled them.

His drive to smash notions of how things ought to be endeared him to legions, a list that, other than everyman fans such as myself, includes film-makers, actors, authors, artists, world leaders and, of course, musicians across all genres.

Then there is his approach, of using his very person as a human canvas to deliver his commentary, which sets his star among the most influential in the universe.

Among a cast of many, he invented Ziggy Stardust, the extra-terrestrial glam rocker; The Thin White Duke, a persona he used to explore isolation; and Major Tom, the accidental astronaut who represented the late 1960s obsession with space. They persistently remain the subject of blogs, rock magazines and university lectures on pop culture.

Consistent with that approach is Blackstar, his album released two days before he died. Its seven tracks chronicle his final farewell, offering insight into the heart of someone who would bare his most private fears to public scrutiny.

Blackstar is classic Bowie genius: the artist for the last time confronting a taboo - openly speaking about the process of dying.

Lazarus, whose accompanying music video shows him at his most vulnerable, is so painful that you can barely finish watching it. "I can't give everything away" are some of the final words on his album, yet with generosity and courage, he did.

In 1995, he had said: "It's really nice that a lot of the new- generation bands have found some of my songs pertinent to what they do. For me, it's just important to know that the way I've changed music is apparent."

Apparent, and for a long time to come. David Bowie is gone, but his spirit remains, the legacy of an artist who was never keen on the mainstream, but who shaped it in more ways than he could have imagined.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'David Bowie's legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe