When the superstar of ‘smooth soul’, Barry White died in 2003, a playwork colleague (who shall remain nameless) produced a seemingly heartfelt tribute, citing the singer’s extensive charity work to support adventure playgrounds and other play projects for street kids in some of the US’s most troubled inner cities. To their great embarrassment, and everyone else’s amusement, the Children’s Play Council (before I worked there, I’m relieved to say) picked up the story and ran it in their widely read Play Today periodical. It was of course a hoax. Before his fame, White had been involved in gangs, but there was no evidence of him using his celebrity to champion playwork or any other play-related cause.
Sadly, reports of David Bowie’s death last Monday morning were not a hoax. As it seems to have done to everyone I know, the news came as a shock, as though it were a personal loss. I think this is not just because I’ve been watching and listening to him since 1972, when he burst into my 13 year-old consciousness like a kind of cosmic Pied-Piper, but because his consummate mastery and other-worldly aura had seemed to imbue him with superhuman powers. He seemed invincible.
It had not occurred to me to mark his passing here. Bowie’s death seemed no more relevant to the play sector than Barry White’s, 13 years earlier. True, his music and what he represents seems especially important to the playwork fraternity – but this could probably be said of almost any group of my peers. Couldn’t it?
Then I listened to Jarvis Cocker’s tribute on BBC 6Music yesterday. The Pulp frontman – who evidently felt the loss as deeply as every other presenter, musician and listener to that and, no doubt, many other stations – played a number of things I had never heard before, including a fascinating talk Bowie gave to some music students in America, about his approach to music and art in general. He said that when he was finding his way as a young writer and performer, he realised, quite early on, that what most inspired him was to experiment with forms, looking for novel ways to combine disparate styles to create something new and surprising. He described this process as always asking himself the question: ‘what if?’
A penny dropped. David Bowie has often been described as ‘more than a musician, more than a pop or rock star’, but someone who used his own image and identity as an integral part of his art, forever ‘reinventing himself’ to present new and exciting personas through which to perform and communicate. This was of course true, but listening to the man describe his musicianship – and listening to the evolution of one of his many classic songs, Fame, from a unique synthesis of old-school American R&B and German post-industrial rock (mentored by that other transcendentally brilliant shaman, John Lennon) was to fully understand that Bowie was not a musician who also experimented with image and identity, but an experimental artist who was driven to forever look for the new and surprising in all the forms available to him – music, image, narrative and performance.
Why is this relevant to play advocates? Because the attitude, ‘what if?’, is fundamentally a playful one. ‘If it itches’ Bowie told his rapt audience of American students, ‘we’re told to take it to the doctor … No: if it itches, play it’. Play is an ambiguous thing, difficult to pin down or define. The playwork understanding of it is something we often have to defend and protect against the anti-ludic forces of conformity, control and instrumentalism. How to convey the value of play without succumbing to such pressures? One way might be to ask people to imagine a world in which Davie Jones of Beckenham had not become David Bowie, but gone to work in a bank.
As far as I can tell, David Bowie had no more of a connection with the play movement than Barry White; but in what he represented, in ‘giving boys the keys to the dress up box’ (Grayson Perry) and all of us a bit more permission to invent, experiment and express different parts of ourselves, he was as close to embodying the spirit of play – surprising, joyous, exciting and a little bit dangerous – as anyone of his stature has ever been.