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David Bowie rock chameleon the master of reinvention

Bowie's passing at age of 69 robs us of one of the all-time greats

By Ralph McLean

I never met David Bowie. Wish I had, just the once, to tell him what his music has meant to me down the decades. There are certain acts who just define your musical journey through life, soundtracking the changes and touching your heart with record after record. Bowie was undoubtedly one of those figures for me.

My wife Kerry had the pleasure of spending some time in his presence during her days as a young reporter in London, and being a massive fan she found herself struggling to string a sentence together as she gazed upon one of the most important figures in popular music history. She still occasionally shudders at the memory of it. As anyone who knows her will tell you, it takes a very big star indeed to render my wife lost for words.

They didn't come much bigger than the Thin White Duke.

His passing yesterday, at the age of 69 after a long battle with cancer, robbed us of one of the true greats. A genuine artist in the very purest sense of the term, he never tired of pushing the envelope as far as possible, forging unforgettable musical creations along the way. From the tousle-haired troubadour of Space Oddity to the glam shock of Ziggy, right up to the complicated jazz man who delivered Blackstar, his final album just last week, this is a restless soul, forever enthused by the power of music to change lives and open doors for those who often felt outsiders in society.

Personally, I loved just about every era he brightened and every character he gave us, but even those further down the obsessive fan ladder would have to admit there are tracks in that back catalogue that have worked their magic on them down the years. Bowie was just that kind of performer. From pop star to soul boy to enigmatic avant-garde artist, there's a Bowie for everyone.

In an age when we wait four years for our biggest artists to emerge with a new album that sounds much the same as the last one with possibly the odd dance beat thrown in to signify "progress", Bowie was the changing man, forever reinventing his sound and remoulding his image as he alone saw fit. In a black and white world he was a much-needed splash of Technicolor. Watch footage of him swan his glorious way through Starman on Top Of The Pops in 1972 and you can almost hear an entire generation of glam hungry wannabes fall into line behind him. By the time they'd applied the face make-up and slipped into the boots, though, the man had moved on. Another blueprint ripped up and another chapter about to start.

His visits to these shores were few but always memorable for his adoring fan base here. That famous 1995 gig at the King's Hall springs to mind, and the numbers of northerners who travelled down to Slane in 1987 for the great man's Glass Spider tour was remarkable by any standards.

The sense that he was always moving, always changing, continued right up to Blackstar. Just last week on the radio I was wishing him happy birthday and playing tunes from that brand new release. Difficult and demanding as the new music was, you had to admire his pioneering spirit and the lyrics of his new single Lazarus with the lines "Look up here I'm in Heaven. I've got scars that can't be seen" seem almost unbearably poignant now.

Further Reading

David Bowie death: Hundreds of fans gather in Brixton to celebrate singer's life 

David Bowie tributes from Madonna, U2, Kanye West, Tim Peake, Ricky Gervais and David Cameron following death of a Starman 

David Bowie stuns music world with loss of a true original 

As a journalist friend of mine said on social media yesterday: "We were so happy to have him back we didn't realise he was actually saying goodbye."

On the subject of that uncomfortable interview my wife Kerry carried out with the man himself back in the day, it's worth noting how he dealt with it. Kerry assures me that when she found herself flustered in front of her musical hero and unable to rustle up a suitable question on the spot, Bowie simply smiled sweetly and told her to take her time.

That sums the man up for me - a gentleman and an understanding artist in one irreplaceable package.

  • Ralph will be doing a special two-hour programme of listeners' favourite Bowie songs on BBC Radio Ulster on Thursday, from 8-10pm. To contribute your favourite Bowie song and explain why it means so much to you, contact Ralph on twitter at @ralphmcleanshow

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