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Remembering David Bowie

Loving the Alien

Jan 11, 2016 David Bowie Photography by Jimmy King Bookmark and Share

David Bowie has died, at the age of 69.

Just a few days ago, I turned in a review for his latest album, Blackstar, released on his birthday, which I described as a treatise on overcoming death anxiety. But I chalked it up to another creative character reinvention. I had no way of knowing, of course, but looking back all the clues were there. Especially in the video for “Lazarus,” which is now so obviously about his impending death. How does an artist accomplish that? How can something so uncontrollable be so perfect and beautiful?

A friend of mine commiserated by remembering how “when you are around 13 and start putting together the type of person you are, music is important and Bowie opened my eyes to so many ways of being, particularly the idea that we are not one person.” That’s it, perfectly. Bowie was adept at introducing characters who were strange and alien, and I loved him for that.

Bowie’s method of artistry wasn’t just brilliant for all of its individual parts, but because it was a lesson in artistry as a whole, an entirely new pattern of creativity. Most rock stars adopt a persona, which in turn can become a prison, but Bowie’s were so confidently original that they freed him from the confines of predictability or expectation.

If Bowie’s music slumped, or if his image grew stale, it was always just temporary. His art was character, as much theater as music, which is why his legacy transcends merely pop music. Not that that’s any small thing to transcend, after all. The entire notion of pop stardom was the canvass Bowie painted on, imagining new identities for the public to adore, only to drag them offstage when he got bored. Which is what we do with our pop stars anyway, but when Bowie was forgetting them for us, it allowed us to never grow tired of him.

I really got into Bowie my senior year of high school. I got the Best of Bowie CD that Christmas, as well as a leather jacket that I noticed looked very similar to the one he wore on the “Heroes” cover. My high school friends didn’t much care for his music at all, probably turned off by his gender fluidity. That only made me want to play it louder. When I got my first turntable, Let’s Dance was the first record I played. I was also thrilled when Reality was released, as it was the first new Bowie record I bought. I thought it was amazing, but nobody else I knew was even remotely interested. To this day, I still think it contains some overlooked gems, like “Days” and “Bring Me the Disco King.”

Over the following years I continued collecting records, discovering new (to me anyway) facets of Bowie’s multilayered personalities, falling in love with every reincarnation and the variety it brought to my understanding of music. I’ve gone through a lot of musical obsessions—Led Zeppelin, The Cure, Lou Reed, The Flaming Lips—but Bowie remains constant as the artist I keep going back to when I’m bored with anything else. I encountered the sonic depth of Brian Eno when I first heard Low, I found a gateway into American soul music through Young Americans, I discovered the unexpected beauty of industrial cyberpunk with Outside, and yet there was always a consistent thread of emotional control and heartfelt performance that defines all of Bowie’s music no matter how often he experimented with method and genre.

David Bowie lasted for such a long time, compared to his contemporaries, but not without a tremendous amount of talent and hard work. Behind all of the makeup and performance, his music is just unbelievable. His voice was always on its own, powerful and dynamic. Listen to the “Sweet Thing” suite from Diamond Dogs, when he just belts, “will you see? They’re not scared, and I know you’re there.” That is a moment unmatched in music. And his was a career full of such moments.

His songs were pop hits, but avant-garde. Who else can boast such mainstream popularity, whose discography includes two albums that are half ambient experimentation? Two of his best and most loved albums, I might add. He championed electronic music when it was still underground, and he dabbled in concept albums that weren’t weighed down by dullness or pretension. He was at the forefront of glam rock, and the Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground, proto-punk art scene. But he was also a household name, Top 40 radio hits, and star of a beloved children’s film. There wasn’t much Bowie couldn’t do, and damn if he didn’t try.

But it all comes back to that final video. I’ve seen him referred to as the blind prophet, lying in the cold bed while levitating. But the image that truly haunts me is the second Bowie who emerges from the wardrobe to hesitantly but furiously write something down, before disappearing back into the closet. This, along with the stunning final track of Blackstar, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” suggest he really was keeping this last thing secret. In pure Bowie fashion, he reserved the most personal parts of his humanity, but offered one final work of unparalleled brilliance.

For me now, there are no other rock stars, no one else who comes close. As far as I’m concerned, the era of music icon is over. I will never shed so many tears for someone I only knew from a distance, as an entertainer. Honestly, I don’t have enough words to manage exactly how important his life and music are to me. I know I’m not alone, and that’s comforting. Learning now that his battle with cancer was ongoing for the last year and half really puts Blackstar in an entirely new, deeply somber light. Bowie was preparing for darkness by recording one of his best albums. I can’t get it out of my head. Like everything else he did, it was daring and beautiful. And most importantly, and like everything else he did, it will last for a very, very, long time.

And because, again, that’s just not enough, here are just a few of my all-time favorite David Bowie tracks.

1. “Heroes” from “Heroes”

2. “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise” from Diamond Dogs

3. “Days” from Reality

4. “Little Wonder” from Earthling

5. “Rock and Roll Suicide” from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

6. “1984/Dodo” an early demo from Diamond Dogs, usually found among bonus material

7. “Young Americans” from Young Americans

8. “Thursday’s Child” from Hours

9. “Be My Wife” from Low

10. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” from Blackstar


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World Of Turntables
October 4th 2016

I also own Let’s Dance on a vinyl, and it sounds great :) . I listen to it all the time.