The rock star, who has died aged 69, enjoyed delighting people with his music and actingby Charlotte Runcie / January 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
In all the tributes that have poured in for David Bowie since his death was announced early on Monday morning, there has been praise of his creativity, individuality and unmatched musical talent. His name has been mentioned alongside Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and John Lennon as one of the men who changed popular music forever.
But alongside his creative genius, another theme has emerged amid the eulogies. Through all the fashion forwardness, the fearless music and the pioneering poetry of his lyrics, there was something about Bowie that shone brightly in the circles he moved in. It was this: David Bowie was a kind man.
Not just kind, but the most thoughtful, generous and good-humoured of rock stars, a man who made his fans feel as though he was the friend they needed most of all. BBC 6 Music set aside their regular playlists on Monday morning, instead broadcasting several hours of Bowie’s greatest hits interspersed with emailed tributes from fans and celebrity friends. They came in their hundreds. “David Bowie was my best friend,” said one fan message. “He just didn’t know it.”
Doing the rounds on Twitter was a letter that Bowie wrote in response to an American fan, 14-year-old Sandra Dodd. It was 1967, early in his career. “When I called in this, my manager’s office, a few moments ago I was handed my very first American fan letter–and it was from you. I was so pleased that I had to sit down and type an immediate reply… Thank you for being so kind as to write to me and do please write again and let me know some more about yourself,” he signed off. You felt he meant it.
His changing fortunes didn’t dull his generosity. In 1985, at the height of his fame, the Sun journalist Nick Ferrari spotted Bowie talking to Eric Idle in a hotel in Cannes. Desperate for an angle, Ferrari made up an unfounded story about Bowie starring in the next Monty Python film. A puzzled Bowie offered Ferrari an interview the next afternoon, and asked him where he’d got the story. After Ferrari sheepishly admitted to some creative journalism, Bowie simply said: “If it gets you through the night! What do you want to talk about?”
In the 1970s and 1980s, he became increasingly obsessive about his music and his image, and was a relentless drug user. His friends described him as distant, hard-to-read, unreachable. But his friend Whispering Bob Harris told The Guardian in 2013 that, “Recently, when I was involved with the Sound & Vision charity for Cancer Research, David immediately donated something. He can be very distant, but on this occasion he really wasn’t.” Another friend, the drummer Sterling Campbell, said, “David doesn’t talk down to you—he makes you feel like an equal.”
Bowie’s generosity with his time, in particular, is evident in the number of films to which he contributed cameos. He voiced the Lord Royal Highness in Spongebob Squarepants, because he so enjoyed watching the show with his young daughter. He took small roles in Extras, Nathan Barley, Zoolander, Arthur and the Invisibles, and even a sweet scene in the bubblegum teen movie Bandslam. You can tell that he made them because he wanted to delight audiences. He enjoyed delighting people.
In the world of the 1970s and 80s where many rock stars were, we know now, prone not only to self-aggrandisement, backstabbing and even unspeakable acts of abuse, Bowie managed to transcend the music scene to become an embodiment of what was great about it. Drugs and narcissism were in his story, but so too was humour and integrity. He had a warm relationship with his son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, whose love and admiration for his father shines through. Bowie attended his son’s film premieres grinning widely, looking like the proudest dad on the planet. Jones has called Bowie “a wonderful guy and father,” saying that he’d had “an incredible childhood” and that Bowie “gave me the time and the support to find my feet and the confidence to do what I do.”
But the kindest thing of all, what millions across the world will remember about Bowie, is his generosity in making music that spoke to people who felt out of kilter with the rest of the universe: people of colour, women and girls, people who are not heterosexual. Bowie dedicated his life to telling us it’s magnificent to be the version of yourself you think you despise, to trust yourself, and to know that you’re never alone. What a gift.
David Bowie’s cameo in Zoolander, released in 2001