Remembering David Bowie
I. “Space Oddity”
The Man Who Sold the World. Ziggy Stardust. Starman. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Goblin King. Whatever your favorite David Bowie persona is, you don’t need this article to tell you how talented, influential and beloved he was and continues to be. He’s even got his own constellation now in the shape of the iconic Aladdin Sane lightning bolt. On January 10, 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th studio album, we lost a bona fide living legend.
Even in the 1970s, there was a sense that Bowie was an otherworldly presence and that we were blessed to live in the same solar system. At times, he seemed more mythical than corporeal, implicating immortality and giving everyone something to love as Bowie somehow transcended humanity and became a savior to outsiders everywhere. His death hit so hard because we half-thought that he would never leave; after all, he influenced so much of popular and art culture (not to mention music, but more on that later) from the 1970s on that the world is remarkably duller without him. But as Bowie himself famously remarked, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
As if we doubted that he wouldn’t be fascinating even in death.
Both as an artist and as a musician, Bowie’s craft was unprecedented and remains untouchable. From 1969 to 1980, his creative apex, Bowie released at least one LP each year except 1978—during which time he starred in a film—with two titles released in 1973 and 1977. Chances are that your favorite record is probably in there somewhere (Heroes gets my vote, with the title track possibly being my favorite song of all time). Simply put, Bowie changed the course of rock during this time, inventing at the very least one genre in glam rock but influencing countless others. In fact, your favorite artist or band today might be a direct descendant of the Bowie lineage. His impact truly is staggering and incalculable.
Bowie didn’t blend genres so much as masterfully jump from one to the next. The psych folk of “Space Oddity” surrendered to the hard rock of “The Man Who Sold the World” before considerably lightening up with the pitch-perfect pop of Hunky Dory only to be mercilessly stomped on by the artful glam rock of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs.” The metamorphoses following the midpoint of the decade were even more dramatic: the transition from the “plastic soul” of “Young Americans” to the drugged-out krautrock of the Thin White Duke’s “Station to Station” was particularly jarring but made sense considering what followed. The Berlin trilogy of “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger” are considered by most to be Bowie’s most important and influential work, comprising a compendium of heartfelt art rock anthems, avant-garde, ambient, motorik, electronic and world music. Bowie himself borrowed from countless acts here, but most modern musicians looking to dabble in experimental, genre-defying art need look no further than the encyclopedic triptych Bowie gifted us.
From the mid-1980s on, Bowie kept releasing music, but many of these albums largely serve as footnotes (Outside being a welcome and notable deviation to this trend) to the career of one of music’s greatest sonic architects. But if anyone could come roaring back from stasis, it would be Bowie.
As critic Ryan Dombal wrote in his Pitchfork review of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.
“David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us…Bowie has put many of his selves to rest over the last half-century, only to rise again with a different guise. This is astounding to watch, but its more treacherous to live through…imagine actually being such a miracle man—resurrection is a hard act to follow.”
The fact that this was written just days before his untimely death is unsettling, even eerie, yet the anxious sentiment rings all the more true. For a while, it seemed like Bowie’s best work would only be artifacts. That all changed in 2013 when Bowie released The Next Day, a stately slow-burner that recalled previous works through funereal dirges interspersed with dramatic jolts of energy and originality.
Bowie’s true swan song, however, proved to be Blackstar, at once 2016’s first great album and Bowie’s last. Upon release, Blackstar was considered his weirdest album, either sonically or thematically, completely untethered to reality and oddly obsessed with death. Of course, the album was an omen leading to a funeral, and Bowie wrote his own eulogy.
The title track which opens the album is a ten-minute space-jazz odyssey that slowly creaks into your consciousness with irregular time signatures and ominous, deeply symbolic lyrics (“How many times does an angel fall?/ How many people lie instead of talking tall?/ He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd/ ‘I’m a blackstar’”), but Bowie’s greatest magic here is the way he downplays the seismic scale of it all into a listenable yet still visceral experience.
“Lazarus,” quoted above, accompanied by its dark video, was almost unquestionably meant as Bowie’s farewell message to fans. Blackstar’s poignant closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is devastating, considering the fact that it may be the last original Bowie song we ever hear, barring the release of any demos (Bowie wanted to release one more album after Blackstar, after all). Beyond that, though, the feeling is bittersweet, as Bowie knows he is about to die, yet he kept his illness a secret: “I know something is very wrong/ The pulse returns to the prodigal son/ The blackout hearts, the flowered news/ With skull designs upon my shoes/ I can’t give everything/ I can’t give everything/ Away.”
In the end, though, I believe that Bowie gave us all he could. Now, he’s among the stars, where he was always meant to be. Thank you, and we’ll miss you—every single one of you.