How do you write about someone whose entire body of work has been showered with superlatives, and when those superlatives have been exhausted, we simply coined new ones? How do you write about an artist who’s on the very very short list of artists that have influenced generations to follow their instincts, go against the grain, and dare to challenge.
Many words will be spilled to mark, sadly, that David Bowie has died. His life in the coming days will be commemorated, and deservedly so. That doesn’t hide from the fact that his death is something devastating, something that, like what he did in his glorious, fearless-driven life, knocked the Earth off its axis.
I won’t lie. The news of David Bowie’s passing knocked the wind out of me. There were rumors he was sick, fueled even further by the ruminations of death and mortality on his most recent album, “Blackstar,” release just three days ago, on his 69th birthday no less. His time on Earth was coming to an end.
Still, this brings me no comfort. I feel extremely empty today. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m not related to David Bowie in any way, but he’s been a big part of my life for several decades; it’s almost like I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t David Bowie’s music, his words, his fashion, his iconoclast ways, in my life and everyone else’s I knew.
Like most people my age, I came to David Bowie through “Let’s Dance,” both the monster title song (it’s an instant classic, one that even my eight-year-old daughter adores) and the album itself. From there, it was a rabbit hole, discovering his vast discography, confused at first, but understanding there was something larger than life about David Bowie. He was a non-conformist about his artistic endeavors, yet he was no stranger to mainstream success.
His songs were the soundtrack to my life, and so many millions more. “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Golden Years,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Under Pressure” (his brilliant collaboration with Queen), “Let’s Dance,” “‘Heroes'” these are songs that will continue to stand the test of time, and be the music I consider essential. His albums embody the mindset of an artist forever chasing and engaging in a musical muse that led him so many times out of his comfort zone, and into creating worlds of musical landscapes that will forever stand the test of time. Seriously. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bowie’s output recently. The glam-soaked punch of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane can still be heard today. The experimental nature of Low and “Heroes” still influences so many independent-minded artists today. From today’s current pop landscape, and previous landscapes, the following can easily trace David Bowie’s influence into their bodies of work: Madonna, Lady Gaga, U2, Kanye West, Marina Abramovich, Joy Division, Arcade Fire; even Bowie’s son, the gifted filmmaker Duncan Jones, has widely acknowledged his father’s artistic influence.
Hell, even David Bowie the actor was fascinating. My mother once reminded me of when she saw him on Broadway as the Elephant Man, and how she was impressed by him. My mother’s cool factor shot up after that. Bowie had screen presence to burn – I loved his turn as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and, hell yeah, he was utterly fucking awesome as the Gnome King in Labrynth.
Bowie was always acting, wasn’t he? Whether he embodied the messianic rock star Ziggy Stardust, or the cynical, coked-up Thin White Duke, or Major Tom, and the several other personas he embraced throughout his career, Bowie was never the same role twice. This is, to this day, an important lesson he taught us creative types: what worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow, embrace uncertainty, leave nostalgia for others.
I’m listening to “Lazarus,” one of the tracks off Blackstar, which kicks off with the line, “Look at me/I’m in heaven.” He sings of being free like a bluebird; knowing what we know about the cancer diagnosis he kept secret, “Lazarus,” is a cry of relief, a man coming to terms with his mortality, even perhaps sharing a joke with the Grim Reaper.
Most musicians, or artists for that matter, would recoil at the mere notion of death, no less again. Not Bowie. Throught the fucking phenomenal Blackstar, Bowie jumps into the flame of excitement, knowing he was facing death head on, and he was going to mine this for all its artistic worth. Morbid, perhaps, but Bowie was never like you or I. He was never shy about facing challenges.
And that’s the thing about Bowie: he was never afraid, never afraid to search, never afraid to ask, never afraid to demand, never afraid to fail. It’s these traits that made Bowie’s body of work such an irreplaceable part of the pop culture canon – witness the legions of musicians, actors, directors, artists that have not just paid their respects to Bowie’s passing, but whose works have been influenced in large parts by Bowie. His successes are breathtaking: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars; Hunky Dory; Aladdin Sane; “Heroes”; Low; Lodger; Station to Station (my personal favorite); Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps); Let’s Dance. Even his failures bore the marks of a restless, forever seeking soul.
I’ll end this with a quote from Bowie that’s been oft-repeated:
“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
Thank you for the music. Thank you for the words. Thank you for being an iconoclast when the world demanded comformity.
Thank you for being David Bowie. Wherever you have gone, may resting in peace be foreign to you; that would be too boring now, would it, restless soul?