Photo Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

It’s beyond cliché to call David Bowie a shapeshifter, yet it’s impossible not to. From folky baroque pop to jazz infused experimental, he covered incredible ground, rejecting any linear trajectory. Amongst the most influential figures in music, he is arguably responsible for entire genres of expression. And not that it means much, but he is the artist whose work I’ve treasured most, consistently returning to his music since I first heard him.

At secondary school, I was awkward, academic, aloof (‘Nothing has changed, everything has changed’). I felt, as I’m told we all did, like the perennial outsider. If you were being kind, you’d say I had ‘a rich inner life’; if not, you wouldn’t say anything. Not surprising then, my unashamed love for Bowie, too often a typecast - a‘leper messiah’. It was an unromantic discovery, the sad exact opposite of bohemian; at 15, realising I had no taste in music, I decided to acquire one, and found ‘Life on Mars?’ online. I remember listening to ‘Hunky Dory’ obsessively. I was awestruck. A wonderful universe, the gift of sound and vision, burst into existence, and Bowie was at the centre of it all. His songs could be anything; bitter, beautiful, charming, kitsch, despondent, funky, orchestrally moving, transcendent, visceral yet cerebral, soulful, pitiful, powerful, horrifying, hilarious & heartfelt all at once. Bowie represented everything, and was everything I wished I were.

As a stereotypically sensitive adolescent, his songs affected me deeply. Like anyone I’m a sucker for the classics: ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Starman’, ‘‘Heroes’’ and countless others. ‘I had so many breakthroughs’ with tracks like ‘Five Years’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Young Americans’; any one could make me ‘break down and cry’. But foregrounding singles (context-shorn songs; amputated outbursts) does him a disservice. Bowie believed in LPs, from softcore psychedelia on ‘Hunky Dory’, to ‘blue-eyed soul’ on ‘Young Americans’, the Berlin Trilogy’s artistic rebirth, to ‘Diamond Dogs’ (forever a favourite). The sense of theatre, which never leaves (just look at the video for ‘Lazarus’) facilitates honesty (he said he’d initially wanted to write musicals, even converting ‘1984’ before Sonia Orwell intervened). His early practice of performing in character freed him to be anything, the utter arbitrariness of everything, liberating; ‘forget your mind and you’ll be free’ (‘just like that bluebird’). This survives too, the sleeve for ‘‘Heroes’’ featuring a wonderfully contrived pose, after either Heckel or Schiele, ironising ‘the whole concept of heroism’. Acknowledging artifice lets you dance the blueswithout crippling self-consciousness. ‘‘Heroes’’ remains among his most popular songs, yet also one of his rawest and most vulnerable, its tone bittersweet, ‘just for one day’, before reality sets in. Nuance is a speciality, alongside variety, and he disguises profound ideas with killer lyrics. Even on ‘Let’s Dance’, at his most unflinchingly commercial, the capitalist dreamboat telling Nile Rodgers to ‘make hits’, there are earnest explorations of cultural imperialism, spiritual bankruptcy, secular wastelands, critiques sharpened through their upbeat veneer. The economic bent is interesting; he winks, having his cake and eating it. Yet recurrent themes: identity and (sometimes ambiguously literal) alienation struck me most.

"Bowie represented everything, and was everything I wished I were"@bowiegram/Instagram

Everybody has artists who soundtrack their memories, and Bowie addressed teenage anxieties exactly. Not knowing ‘who I was’ or should be was particularly painful, especially since everyone else seemed to have already been told. ‘Sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts’, ‘facetious’ responses to questions of normality and identity, ‘I’m not quite right at all (am I?)’, helped me laugh, to ‘turn and face the strange’. ‘Watch that Man’ acknowledged the existential horror of parties ‘every bottle battled with the reason why’. ‘Aladdin Sane’ evoked the freedom of midnight solitude; nervous, solipsistic excitement, commingled with fear. Alienation, on ‘Sweet Thing - Candidate - Sweet Thing’; a stunning triptych of dada cut-ups, wailing saxophone and burlesque vocals, built to a heart-rending climax of frantic, desolate loneliness. As exams approached, scared I’d wasted my ‘golden years’, I had no excuse to do anything besides study. I smashed my soul and traded my mind’; music was a release. The ‘Speed of Life’ unrelenting, I realised I’d grown up without noticing. ‘We live for just these twenty years; do we have to die for the fifty more?’. Bowie was scared too. ‘I’m not some piece of teenage wildlife!’ he screams on ‘Scary Monsters’s midlife crisis in song. Frustration ‘you never leave your room’, poisoned fantasies of living another life, ‘I could make it all worthwhile’ featured heavily. The reassurance that ‘things that happened in the past only happened in your mind’, attracted him too, given his faith in reinvention and self-determination. From the sticky spectre of ‘The Laughing Gnome’ to ‘Space Oddity’s abortive promise, Bowie almost addresses himself on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, ‘no matter what or who you’ve been’. It’s pointless complaining ‘it could have been me’; there’s always ‘The Next Day’. Emergent individuality makes easy pickings for marketers, but Bowie doesn’t pander ‘they’re quite aware what they’re going through’. Adolescence wasn’t a ghetto, I had feelings and they were valid.

Cliché or not, sticking Bowie with any single message is impossible. ‘Something happened on the day he died’, and the ensuing bruhaha, scraggy demos, statues in Aylesburys and endless derivative ‘tributes’ was a bit much, reducing him to a canvas for narcissists. Ziggy Stardust’s fate seems uncannily prescient; ripped apart, his elements making others visible. Streaming suits him (if not his albums), with its eclecticism, its radical temporal rootlessness. The idea of Bowie as infinite cannot be true, yet however I conclude will be inadequate, like his death; Bowie can’t die. He refracted light in a million different directions, outshining himself, making it impossible to close the book on him; his legend was bigger than he was. Bowie can’t die, because he never existed. He’s ‘living on’, a legend.