His influence on other artists. That's a place to start. How listening to his music, or watching him perform, made people want themselves to be musicians or writers. Creators. You don't get that with The Rolling Stones or Fleetwood Mac or Radiohead. All great bands, but they're not generative--not in that way. People who make paintings, people who make movies, people who make clothes: hang out with any group of real or would-be artists, you'll find his fans.
Are they fans or followers? Devotees. (Worshippers?)
A music often about disconnection. About not being able to feel--the pain of that. That's a paradox--the feeling of not feeling. A very odd and difficult space from which to make art.
To say "a music about" is impossible. Forty years of music. Of course it's not all 'about' anything. But certain themes recur. Loneliness. Alienation. Fear. Ambition.
A sense of drama, which is another word for danger. The intense vibrato of his voice. An operatic, transcendental quality was thus bestowed on even the most seemingly banal of utterances. "Put on your red shoes and dance the blues." It feels like more than an invitation to dance. It feels like an invitation to take the blue pill, to tumble down the rabbit hole--to participate in something grand and romantic and (maybe) sinister.
In some ways, every great artist is a great fan. Because what they make is only a product of what they consume. Thus one of the most crucial gifts for an artist is their taste--their sense of what to follow, who to copy, what to be excited about. Seen in that light, his ability to sense out, in 1970, The Velvet Underground (and Warhol), or, in the mid-70s, the synthesizer rock of the experimental Germans--not to mention, his career long gift for finding the right collaborators--stands as one of his great gifts. (He was covering a Springsteen song in 1975!)
How many artists did their some of their best work with him? Fripp. Ronson. Eno. Queen. Earl Slick. Reeves Gabrels. Adrian Belew. John Lennon (as a solo artist). Nile Davis. The list goes on.
I remember going to see the shows he did for the Earthling tour. I was living in Berkeley. My lifestyle there was, let's say, unconventional. He played three shows, two one week, and one more the next week. To one of the shows I wore a disco-blue dinner jacket made of a shimmery rayon-like fabric. To another, a black-and-white polka-dotted blazer, with black jeans. And makeup. At one of the shows I had shelled out big money for what had been sold as the best seats in the house. They turned out to be right behind the mixing booth. One of the ushers saw us, sitting there, craning to see, before the show. How bummed we were. She gave us little tickets, which allowed us to go stand on the floor. Twenty feet away. In a throng of true believers. He came wearing a beige male skirt, singing "Quicksand" while he strummed an acoustic. All my posters from those shows got ruined, when my house flooded in grad school. I wish I had one still.
I used to have a framed print of him from Man Who Fell To Earth. He was wearing a wide floppy black hat--on one of my walls. I found the picture in some record store, had it framed. I wish I had that photo still.
Certain lucky people I used to make watch The Man Who Fell To Earth. I would talk over most of it, providing delerious exegesis. People found it unpleasant.
In high school, when I was preparing for some big night out--to prom, or on a big date--I would listen at top volume to "Life on Mars" and "Quicksand." To help psyche me up, I guess.
They're neither of them very good psyche up songs.
I've heard this story told with various personages, but John O'Hara, supposedly, when told of the death of George Gershwin, was said to have replied, "I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."
I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.