The death of David Bowie, recently led me on an exploration: a peek into his life’s work. And it brought an unexpected realization taken from his point of view, one that’s a nightmare for every creative.
Creatives and by this I mean painters, designers, entrepreneurs, thinkers, musicians, writers, performers etc. put it on the line daily, plying their wares all the same doubting the quality of their ability, fearing it’s been done before and better. Creatives are a paranoid lot.
But little do they realize that failure, their ultimate perceived disgrace, is in fact a prerequisite for success. As it is for us all.
Surprisingly, even Bowie, the prolific rocker, faced it throughout his career and it’s this theme I’ll explore, using both Bowie and another great creative—author, George R. R. Martin, as illustration. Many would know Martin from the sci-fi sections of bookstores if not current prime time TV. We’ll come to him later.
So get ready for a wild ride, because the best have already been where we fear to tread and they know every turn.
The strains of jazz-sax and early Rock ’n’ Roll held a young David Bowie’s musical spark. On the magnificent two-part BBC radio documentary “Bowie’s Heroes” presented by Matt Everitt, Bowie said:
There was so little of it that when it did appear on television it seemed like the most … uh … like ‘The Holy Grail’: especially if it was from America. They’d show a clip from a movie. I remember getting so excited when they showed Little Richard—it was just amazing to actually see him moving he’d just been a record to me before, you know.
Bowie made his first record in 1964, a rock tune “Liza Jane”. Though moving on to a fascination with Mod, watching the groups The Kinks and The Who, in 1967 he instead plunged into mainstream pop, a genre he sugarcoated more than anyone with the song “Love Me Till Tuesday”. Some said his singing oozed a “beautiful naiveté.” But it wasn’t yet triumph.
Then came Glam Rock in the form of Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd fame. Barrett inspired Bowie to his breakout hit “Space Oddity”—you know, “Ground control to Major Tom …” a melody the world will forever recognize as Bowie’s own. But it took T. Rex’s Marc Bolan to ferment an artistic rivalry that made BBC’s Everitt question whether Bowie might have pursued Glam at all—yes, the whole Ziggy Stardust aura—had “Bolan not been wearing glitter on his face” first.
Thing is, despite Bowie’s early prodigiousness—his initial achievements, his chameleon progression of styles, his hour-long chat with Andy Warhol (about shoes), and his sit-down with Lou Reed one night (only to find out later that it wasn’t Reed after all)—he had his shaky moments too.
In 1976 Bowie moved to Germany to produce the “Berlin Trilogy”, something far from his roots. In fact, if listened to closely, you can hear the burgeoning of what radio would soon call New Romanticism. But Bowie wasn’t shy about his deliberateness while there: to lift his art from what he termed typical “American chord sequences”—and in so doing avoided the Punk genre entirely.
This brought a massive hit with “Ashes to Ashes”. It also grew a succession of work he’d admit “wasn’t that strong” at all. And there his first doubts were sown.
Then in 1983 came the miraculous album “Let’s Dance” that for the first time sent the rocker platinum. These were the heady days of MTV—and with Bowie’s visual style and artistic sixth sense, songs like “Modern Love” and “China Girl” easily went Top 10. “Let’s Dance”, the song itself, rewarded Bowie with his second career number one.
Still the artist, ever restless, moved on—maybe too far. Everitt noted, in the 1990s Bowie “became influenced by people who became influenced by him.”
And this resulted once again in the feeling that he’d “lost his way artistically.” So much so, that from around 2003 it carved a ten-year creative vacuum during which, as Everitt put it, Bowie merely “became a fan.” Some actors say they’re lucky if they land a gig each year. Here was Bowie lost in a decade-long hiatus.
Until 2013 when like a creature out of hibernation shaking off a stupor, and likely ravenous, Bowie thumped the public with the song, “Where Are You Now?” And it yet again, blew the industry away … to no small extent because no one saw it coming.
Everitt said: “It was Bowie—fragile, introspective—but definitely David Bowie.” Foo Fighters’s Dave Grohl agreed, “It just came out of nowhere.” And that of course, was the plan. The song would eventually form part of Bowie’s 24th studio album. On release it topped the charts in eight countries: without any promotion whatsoever.
Said producer Tony Visconti: “I stared at my computer for 15 minutes until the first person realized it was simply dropped in iTunes.” And as The Hollywood Reporter’s Shirley Halperin wrote: “Bowie’s decision to release it on his 66th birthday—typically a day when one would expect to receive presents and good tidings—was really a gift to us, his fans.”
Which brings us to timing and an equally prodigious artist—author George R. R. Martin who too surprised the public only a couple of months ago with the most genuine a mea culpa I’ve ever seen.
Using his blog—brilliantly called “Not a Blog”—Martin, as creator of the best selling “Game of Thrones” franchise, wrote on January 2nd:
THE WINDS OF WINTER is not finished. Believe me, it gave me no pleasure to type those words. You’re disappointed, and you’re not alone. My editors and publishers are disappointed, HBO is disappointed, my agents and foreign publishers and translators are disappointed… but no one could possibly be more disappointed than me. For months now I have wanted nothing so much as to be able to say, ‘I have completed and delivered THE WINDS OF WINTER’ on or before the last day of 2015. But the book’s not done.
. . .
Nor is it likely to be finished tomorrow, or next week. Yes, there’s a lot written. Hundreds of pages. Dozens of chapters. (Those ‘no pages done’ reports were insane, the usual garbage internet journalism that I have learned to despise). But there’s also a lot still left to write. I am months away still… and that’s if the writing goes well. (Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.) Chapters still to write, of course… but also rewriting. I always do a lot of rewriting, sometimes just polishing, sometimes pretty major restructures.
You see Martin, after writing 26 books and short stories, editing an equal number of compilations, not to mention crafting abundant scripts and screenplays throughout his career, had missed a series of major deadlines with “The Winds of Winter”.
Not only should it have been published long prior to Christmas 2015, the next installment of the highly lucrative TV series “Game of Thrones” relied on it, and it was about to air—containing spoilers meant for revelation first up in the novel. This was a huge screw up and no one messes with the multi-million dollar TV advertising behemoth, let alone its teetering book-publishing scaffolding.
But as Martin admitted, his vulnerability shield completely down:
Look, I have always had problems with deadlines. For whatever reason, I don’t respond well to them.
David Bowie would chant, “Fame. Brings so much pain.” And it applied to legendary musician and accomplished fiction writer alike: dancer and painter, actor and model, couturier and sculptor, chef and entrepreneur.
It’s the way creativity has to be. “It’s a long way to the top if you want [it], ” AC/DC’s Bon Scott sang. And then you have to stay there.
Bowie would maintain his own aura of artistic vulnerability too, right till his death, singing as he did from his bed in the most chilling, yet perfect thumb-to-the-nose act of non-conformity.
As for George Martin, he humbly declared:
Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. Chapter at a time. Page at a time. Word at a time. That’s all I know how to do.
How can you beat that sincerity? When it comes to being a pro—in the face of failure, you keep plugging on.
© 2016 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.
Main picture: When it rains, author’s photo.