It’s warmed my heart to see so many tributes to David Bowie this week. I’ve always considered him an icon but the magnitude was impossible to comprehend until he was gone. I had listened to Blackstar several times since its release two days earlier and felt it was Bowie’s strongest album in decades. I like The Next Day and don’t dislike Reality or a few of the 90’s albums but there was something grander about this…something ominous and real…something inexplicably bigger. It seemed clear to me that Bowie was pondering his mortality, which, at the age of 69, isn’t uncommon. Fuck, I do that now, who could blame him? As it turns out, as we all know now, he had very good reason to ponder.
I cannot imagine what it is like to live with a terminal illness. I have known and loved people living with incurable cancer. I watched them fight, weaken and die. It is a harsh, unforgiving transformation. Cancer has no regard for the life of the person it is slowly murdering. Though David Bowie was a very public figure his real life, the one lived with his wife and daughter, was very private. Through his accumulation of personas and his music we felt a connection to a man that we knew almost nothing of. He wanted it that way. I have no idea what he went through these last 18 months but he was clearly intent on departing this realm as artfully and passionately as he lived in it.
The moment I read the announcement of his death, Blackstar felt like something far different than what it initially seemed. Never has an artist so carefully crafted their send-off. This is the kind of death a book or a play or a movie is made about. The timing, the drama, the agony...it was so…BOWIE. The man was a singing, swaggering work of art every step of the way. Why would his death be any different? Though it was shocking and sad to realize the Thin White Duke had taken his final bow, everyone learns the limits of their mortality at some point. My mind soon turned to his creative legacy and the gratitude I felt for his influence in my art.
It took me a while to understand David Bowie. A long while, actually. When I was 17 growing up in Puyallup, Washington there was a music store called Budget Tapes and Records that I spent a lot of time at. This was just before the Napster craze and Budget had a HUGE selection of used music that could be had for a very reasonable price. They also had a Dollar Bin that I very rarely perused because it usually was overflowing with Donny Osmond albums and other absolute shit that was of no interest to me (sorry/not sorry Donny). Anyhoo on this particular day I decided to look through it and saw a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I had listened to exactly zero Bowie up to this point. But I knew knowledge of his work was a MUST for anyone who fashioned themselves a knower of musical matters and promptly laid out the 4 quarters and 7 pennies it would cost to take such a risk.
I was apprehensive. I was excited. I got a great deal! I got home. I made a beeline to my room, hastily stuffed the CD in to my player and…was immediately confused, disoriented, and otherwise nonplussed. I liked “Suffragette City” but the rest made no sense to me. “But this is legendary shit,” I thought to myself. “Why don’t I get it? I HAVE TO GET IT.” But I just didn’t. Super uncool, I would remain. A classic Galactic dilemma.
But I didn’t give up on Ziggy. I kept that album. I made myself listen to it every once in a while. Just to see…did I get it yet? I listened to hundreds more albums, continued to expand my musical vocabulary and…still nothing. WHY MUST THIS HOMOEROTIC MASTERPIECE OF SPACE AND TIME ELUDE MY SIMPLE MIND?!
Flash forward 4 years. I am 21. I have a full-time job and a long drive every day to get to it. I have one of those big-ass books with much of my cd catalog in it and on this particular hazy morning (this was the height of my stoner-dom, every morning was hazy), Ziggy found his way in to the CD player. And in an instant, a moment of clarity, Earth, Sun and Moon formed a perfect circle and the limits of my coolness expanded just enough for me to the grasp the brilliance contained on that spinning, thin silver circle. Suddenly I got it in a very big way. I listened to it every day for a very long time afterward. It was like going from Padawan to Jedi. It was like I had discovered The Force for the first time.
It changed what I wanted to do with my own music. It changed what I wanted to listen to. It changed me in a fundamental way.
Now there wasn’t a David Bowie album safe from my eager ears. Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Low, and “Heroes” all became staples in my regular rotation. His ability to assimilate, produce, and reinvent, draping every aspect of his essence in art, was a constant inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, the confidence with which he delivered his message, that free expression belonged to everyone, the freakier the better, provided a fatherly comfort, both artistically and in my day-to-day life.
Bowie never drew lines or set limits on where his creativity could go. He wasn’t perfect either, by his own admission he made some pretty bad albums in the 80’s trying to reach an MTV audience he didn’t entirely understand. But shouldn’t an artist dedicated to experimentation fail sometimes? Any result to David Bowie, success or failure, was temporary. He brushed it off, changing pace and face and spent the 90’s successfully reaching that audience that had eluded him the decade before, highlighted by a legendary co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails that many of us are probably irate to have missed right about now.
David Bowie, the artist, will be remembered as many things: a transformational songwriter and performer, a tinkerer who experimented with texture and tone endlessly, a believer in the power of transformation, an advocate for the young, the alienated, the disaffected…that horribly awesome “Dancing in the Streets” video with Mick Jagger, his bulge in “The Labyrinth”…the list is long and deservedly so.
The man, David Jones, is purposefully an enigma. Perhaps in an effort to let his art do the talking, he revealed very little of himself to the public. There will no doubt be tell-all interviews and books forthcoming, there are already some far-less-than-flattering stories in circulation that Bowie never denied in his lifetime. It is not my intention nor is it possible for me to sing the praises or condemn him as a person.
In the end, he was a tremendous shaper of pop culture and contemporary culture in general. His gifts were vast and he was generous with them all.
I am eternally grateful to have known the celestial presence that came to be called Bowie.