I will be honest. I liked David Bowie. I enjoyed the little I had heard of his music. I respected the fact that he was a true “artist,” but my respect was vague and distant. The truth is, I did not own any David Bowie albums. I was spending my lawn-cutting money on Styx and Foreigner and Kansas, because they were “cool” and their music was what is called “accessible,” meaning one doesn’t have to think to appreciate that kind of music on a superficial level. In addition to those paragons of Seventies mediocrity, I also liked Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, so perhaps subconsciously I felt that was enough to satisfy the requirement of respecting the art that lay beyond the guitars and drums. In short, I didn’t make the effort to truly investigate and consider Bowie’s work.
In my defense, mine was a typically awkward transition from childhood into adolescence: I still collected baseball cards; I had a serious crush on Sandra Summerlin but I didn’t know what to do about it; I wrote “Bad Company rocks!” on the side of my school desk and considered it brave and devious and clever to have done so. In other words, I needed David Bowie but didn’t realize it.
I’m not going to attempt to write a thoughtful, incisive essay about the importance of David Bowie because to do so would be to feign a depth of understanding that I don’t truly possess, and the superficiality of doing such is precisely the type of pretentiousness that Bowie disdained. Instead, I will embrace and enjoy the insights of others who are much more qualified than I am to discuss the art, brilliance, and cultural importance of David Bowie.
BGS contributors @ohkiv and @bradnarok agreed to assist me in giving proper tribute to Bowie. Harris offers an overview of Bowie’s career and provides some excellent links to additional material. Brad not only discusses Bowie’s music, he also covers Bowie’s impressive (and often underrated) acting career.
David Bowie has reinvented himself both musically and aesthetically many times throughout his career that spanned over 50 years. Born David Jones, he changed his name to Bowie early on. Thereafter, the Starman became Ziggy Stardust became Aladdin Sane (a lad insane for those keeping score at home) became the Thin White Duke became Jareth the Goblin. What has become apparent to me in the hours and now days since his death was announced is that he was always David Bowie/Davie Jones and that, from the stories that have been exploding forth on the internet, he was as great a human being as he was an artist.
Coming of age in the 1980s, I was completely into his “hits,” the ones you can find on his double disc singles collection. “Space Oddity,” “Changes” and “Ziggy Stardust” were all a part of my formative soundtrack. A highlight was seeing him live on the Sound + Vision Tour in 1990 in the old Omni in Atlanta. I was 19 and was happy to be seeing what was then dubbed his last greatest hits tour. When I look at the setlist now I am blown away by number of amazing songs he had to choose from.
As a German instructor and somebody who is fascinated with the cultural output of a divided Germany, I am drawn to his Berlin years from 1976-79. The albums he released during that time period, Low, Heroes and Lodger, have come to be known as the Berlin Trilogy and they are all outstanding. On those three records, he was influenced by Krautrock legends Neu! and Kraftwerk and worked closely with ambient synth legend Brian Eno. The results are legendary.
While in Berlin, he was hanging out with Iggy Pop and also had a huge influence on the Detroit Rocker’s two albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, during that time period. Indeed, Bowie produced both albums and co-wrote most of the songs on both LPs. He even gets full writing credit on the iconic “Lust for Life.” After giving Mott the Hoople “All the Young Dudes” in 1972, he gave Iggy a song just as good if not better five years later.
I have been listening to a lot of The Thin White Duke (my favorite alter ego) over the last two days. I played “Black Star” and “Lazarus” from the new album on my radio show on Tuesday, and my voice did crack a bit when I was talking about the two songs that now make much more sense since his death. An archive of the show can be found here. The next day I listened to a recording of him doing a radio show for the BBC in 1979 and felt connected to him, if only for the moment.
David Bowie made so many great videos, as is outlined in this piece by Philip Sherburne. My favorite is “Let’s Dance” from 1983 because that is when I was first introduced to his music. I will leave you with that.
For this young man who got a late start on his musical listening journey, David Bowie was the catalyst for a whole new world of sounds and styles. I can remember vividly listening to Hunky Dory in its entirety in my small but private office not all that long ago. I had heard his hits before, of course, but never taken in the variety that the proto-Ziggy had on offer on that record. I wanted more and began to realize a whole corner of the music world which took influence from Bowie. How could they not? Even indirectly, Bowie’s reach was so vast and varied that some piece of his talents could wind up in just about any genre.
I listened to his whole catalogue over the course of a couple of weeks. I loved just about all of it. One which struck me in particular was “Ashes to Ashes” from the Scary Monsters album. It tells the continued story of the more popular song, “Space Oddity”. The heroic astronaut of the 60’s, Major Tom is now just a junkie. Strung out in heaven’s high. Hitting an all-time low. The honesty and depth of the song in light of Bowie’s own recovery from a manic period of subsisting on “cocaine, milk, and red peppers” is striking. “Ashes to Ashes” also has a fantastic music video. One of the greatest ever made despite being produced before music videos went mainstream. And in that avant garde, poetic video, one encounters a merging of two of Bowie’s greatest talents; the music he is rightly known for most and the acting chops that often get overshadowed.
Bowie’s characters, Ziggy, The Thin White Duke, etc. are inextricably linked to his music and each show a real penchant for method style work. He lived those characters; sometimes to great personal detriment. But Bowie wasn’t just a music video and concert character. He starred in many notable movie roles and made some truly memorable cameos. You can see the spaceman come to life in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” from 1976. In this strange and wonderful flick, Bowie works with a string thin plot that comes alive thanks only to his paradoxical performance. He is frail yet powerful, distant but attentive, mysterious and impossible to forget. He is the alien learning to be human–a role he cultivated over the years prior. Not too much later, Bowie would move on from that sex and violence filled art film to play the Goblin King in a Muppets movie. Labyrinth is the Bowie introduction point for a whole generation. The kids movie is not spectacular but once again Bowie shines. It takes a special presence to be recognizable as the ruler of goblin puppets while dressed as a human rock star; to be the primary antagonist of a story and yet never really come across as unlikeable or particularly villainous. It was a delicate role and imagining any other actor in it is pointless. The same can be said of his role as the highly fictional version of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. Once again playing a magic, otherworldly entity capable of great power, Bowie hooked yet another generation with his performance.
He was often cast for the roles nobody else could do; the vague and stylish and aliens that were likely partially inspired by him in the first place. His were bizarre and difficult to define characters. It is easy to look at these roles and his musical personas and assume that he was effective in them because he was not acting at all. Maybe these characters were just who he was. And yet if you read interviews, and listen to stories about the man you begin to see that he was a warm and kind person in love with humanity. He was goofy and shy and pleasant and deeply in love with humanity. He wasn’t an alien, himself. He was a fantastic artist capable of playing many a convincing role.
There is an understandable thread of cynicism which questions the authenticity of grief over the loss of a celebrity like Bowie. How could we miss somebody we never met? In some cases, I’m sure grief is exaggerated or performative. But it is foolish to not accept that art can move or impact us. The artistry and craftsmanship of David Bowie spoke volumes to the artists and craftsmen in many a person over his decades long career. Through his many reinventions he reached out to the creative instinct in millions of people and made a connection. A connection built on art can easily develop into a connection with the artist. And when the era of that bond comes to a close, it can leave a hole because humans are bizarre creatures with difficult to define emotions. Maybe that is just off-the-cuff pop psychology which amounts to nothing. I don’t know. But I do know that I have been listening to Bowie’s music and watching his movies a lot this week. I know that I miss him even though I didn’t know him personally. I can only truly speak for myself, but I know that on hearing the news of his passing, I found myself wishing I could fill a Ziggy-shaped hole.
Tonight’s featured video is a lively rendition of “Rebel Rebel” filmed in 2003 during the making of the A Reality Tour album and DVD. Bowie had the ability to be completely immersed in the song yet still engage the audience. He was a consummate artist and he will be missed deeply.