Private Viewing: David Bowie was the coolest young dude but was he a true legend?

David Bowies persona as a cultural icon may have contribted more to his legendary status than his m

David Bowies persona as a cultural icon may have contribted more to his legendary status than his music which did not receive widespread promotion in the final years of his life. - Credit: PA

The death of David Bowie has triggered a genuine sense of loss. Arts editor Andrew Clarke asks what makes a legend?

Although Queen's Freddie Mercury was an equally inspirational musician and cultural figure, his deat

Although Queen's Freddie Mercury was an equally inspirational musician and cultural figure, his death in 1991didn't trigger the same media frenzy as the unexpected death of David Bowie.; photo - Douglas Puddifoot/Queen Productions Ltd; - Credit: Archant

The term legend is bandied around far too often when it comes to actors and musicians. It seems if anyone is popular for more than a couple of years then the term "legend" immediately jumps to people's lips. The death of David Bowie this week was a case in point. It prompted an out-pouring of grief unseen since the death of John Lennon.

Contained in the insightful tributes was a genuine sense of loss. Inevitably it didn't take long for the word "legend" to appear.

I would accept that David Bowie can justifiably be described as a legend but I would also say that the term is so over-used that it has lost much of its currency.

It provoked a lot of discussion in the office about what it takes to turn a performer into a legend. The Anglian published an excellent eight page supplement that was incredibly easy to fill because Bowie had achieved so much, was well-loved and therefore many people could be eloquent about his work and what he meant to them.

So, the question which has vexed us this week is: "What does it take to become a true legend?" Why was David Bowie regarded as a legend and when someone like BB King, who also died recently and had been at the peak of his profession for decades before David Bowie appeared on the scene, was not accorded the same level of grief that Bowie attracted.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that even though BB King was an icon in his field, he was also substantially older, 89, and had been ill for a long time. Also blues is no longer is part of the musical mainstream.

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If we want to compare like with like then look at the comparatively muted responsible to the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991. Freddie was a much-loved, very flamboyant figure, who shared many of the same fashion-icon characteristics that Bowie enjoyed but his death didn't warrant the supplements and television specials that marked Bowie's demise.

One factor that perhaps shaped David Bowie's rise to legendary status was the fact that he wasn't just a rock star or a song writer he was an actor, artist and a trend-setter - he was a public figure, someone who connected to the world at large rather than just those who listened to his music.

It could be argued that Bowie changed his music styles so often (as frequently as he changed his appearance) that many people wouldn't have liked everything he produced and certainly as far as the music mentioned in the obits are concerned they all date from between 1971 and 1985. Although he continued making music in the last 20 years his albums were largely self-funded and promoted online.

In fact BBC arts editor Will Gompertz managed to write an entire obituary without mentioning his music once. Describing him as "the Picasso of Pop" was important to Gompertz was that fact that Bowie was "quite extraordinarily cool".

He added: "He was an innovative, visionary, restless artist: the ultimate ever-changing postmodernist. He brought art to the pop party, infusing his music and performances with the avant-garde ideas of Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Andy Warhol.

"Bowie was a truly theatrical character that at once harked backed to pre-War European theatre while anticipating 1980s androgyny and today's discussions around a transgender spectrum."

According to Gompertz, the fact that Bowie was a public icon is more important to his "legend" status than the fact that he was a highly accomplished music-maker.

Right from the beginning he refused to run with the pack. He was dictating fashion rather than following it. Bowie was also a very credible actor appearing in The Elephant Man on stage and on film in the Second World War Japanese prison camp drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, Julian Temple's love letter to the 1950s, the Goblin King in Jim Henson's Labyrinth and a very seductive vampire in Tony Scott's The Hunger. But, his most distinctive on screen appearance was also his debut in Nicholas Roeg's arthouse hit The Man Who Fell To Earth.

It is our reaction to David Bowie's death which has been fascinating. Bowie as an icon would appear to be more important than Bowie as a creative artist - despite his enormously varied successes. Ultimately he was more than the sum of his parts. Although, I am sure that he has many more years left in him, I can't see Elton John being accorded the same level of conspicuous grieving on his death.

Indeed it is very hard to pin down exactly what makes a legend but perhaps that's how it should be. Legends aren't made they just appear when you need them.

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