I neglected to post this when I first heard the news of David Bowie’s passing, relayed by a sweet note left by my wife to gently break the news to me.
Here are a few words I had to say shortly afterwards:
With Bowie’s death nearly coinciding with the release of his album BLACKSTAR in a dark eclipse, we have to admit that Bowie had impeccable timing, even with the unplanned. Our collective loss of this icon harshly reminded us that we were always many steps behind him, as evidenced by the continued struggle to understand his music, films, and life, represented in the countless discussions, retrospectives, and remembrances from a multitude of individuals. Tony Visconti, a longtime friend and collaborator of Bowie’s, remarked how with this release, and the musical LAZARUS, that Bowie made “his death… a work of Art.” Which isn’t all that different of an assessment from what we have been able to definitively say about Bowie’s life.
Despite the existence of far more informed, touching, and beautiful tributes, I’m here to pay my respects as well. Especially as someone who came along as a Bowie fan later in life, embracing all of his career as a monolithic testament to creativity and musical freedom.
I went on a trip to Europe between my junior and senior years of high school. In some Czech Republic music store I bought LOW, YOUNG AMERICANS, and THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD. I still have the price stickers on them indicating the original currency, the Czech koruna.
I don’t really know what made me purchase those particular albums, at that store, in that place, at that moment in time. I was really into progressive and art-rock music at the time, I would probably have named Genesis, especially the Peter Gabriel-era, as my favorite band. I’d heard good things about HEATHEN, which was released about that time, and had actually asked my parents to pick it up for me upon my return to the states.
My only encounter with Bowie’s music previously were a few mp3s I had downloaded, with “Space Oddity” standing out in memory as I always got a bit choked up with the line “tell my wife I love her very much” signifying the late tragic turn the song takes in the final verse as Major Tom, the astronaut hero of the song, floats off, alone, into the unknown.
With albums in hand (ear?) from very different periods of Bowie’s career, I delved headfirst into the entire discography heading into the past and continuing the obsession into the future from those first album branches I had secured. Usually with most musicians that have so that many releases I typically concentrate on a particular period. I just remember listening to all of Bowie and loving it.
The REALITY tour in 2003-2004 were some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I went 5 times. There was this 55-year old legend impeccably performing 25-30 rock songs night after night until literally dropping as he did in June of 2004. Though it started the period of withdrawal from public life and gave him (and us) quite the health scare, he managed to deliver more music and the satisfaction that he was enjoying his quieter life as a family man.
Looking back, I’m not sure what defines Bowie most for me. And I think that’s the best compliment to give an artist. The inability to distill a life and career down to a particular high point, specific message, or definable trait is truly the highest honor one can be bestowed. Case in point, even in naming my personal favorite Bowie album and ignoring any other considerations, I have to list a 5-way tie between ALADDIN SANE, STATION TO STATION, LOW, ‘HOURS…’, and HEATHEN. It’s that splintering, personified often by Bowie’s assumed characters, that best represent him. A fracturing that I can’t help but feel was represented so well in the various pieces of the “blackstar” which thoughtfully mark the music video and accompanying images from that last album.
I love the whole concept of the “blackstar,” aligning himself as this fictional celestial object that no longer exudes light in this visible universe. There’s also the cancer lesion reference, but I credit Bowie with always being able to take a familiar thing and make it mean so much more. Again, the sign of a master craftsman.
Bowie was fearlessly creative, endlessly inquisitive, and thoughtfully gifted. There are many who are brave, but lack imagination. There are many who are curious, so long as it serves an agenda. Many possess wonderful gifts, but don’t explore them or share them in a meaningful way. Visconti pointed out how Bowie composed his death with his final album. As someone petrified of the inevitable, Bowie made me feel a bit more comfortable and accepting in a way that no one else has been able to do. And that’s undeniably art at its highest level.
I’m going to end this as one should — with some music that likely slipped through much of the memorializing:
An incredible look at the creation of “‘Heroes'” with Visconti:
This is next one is a monster of a rock song. In its own way it reaches the epic proportions of grand Led Zeppelin tunes like “Kashmir.” “Station To Station”:
Heavy, sleazy, and sexy. In other words, rock and roll. Loved the sets and band from the short HOURS… tour. “Cracked Actor”:
Bowie was often a smooth and soulful singer. “Win”:
A song of love and hope. “Thursday’s Child”:
Love songs that end on guitar solos… and talk soberly about drugged out episodes. “Always Crashing In The Same Car”:
Moody, dreamy, and beautiful. “The Loneliest Guy”:
Should also respect the Bowie collaborators: Mike Garson on piano. Also, Bowie doing his best Nine Inch Nails. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”:
Reeves Gabrels makes my brain melt with his solo. “Looking For Satellites”:
Art. Pure and simple. “Warszawa”:
Optimism. “Never Get Old”:
And the most beautiful of them all. “Life On Mars?”:
R.I.P. David Bowie.