Thursday, January 28, 2016

On David Bowie

Losing David Bowie was tough. Just a cursory browse of the Internet in the days following the king of glam rock’s passing revealed this. So many rumors of his death and false obituaries over the past decade had made this seem like an impossibility. There was an outpouring of people expressing how difficult it is to lose him or how lucky we were to live through his creative output. Even now, weeks after his death, I can turn to a music website and see a new retrospective about his career. And you know what, regardless of how many I’ve already seen, I’ll probably read it. He truly was an incredible artist.

Because of all the existing eulogies, there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said. Like most people, I spent the last few weeks consuming Bowie albums. The diversity from album to album is just astounding. Two albums from the same decade may not even sound like they were from the same person. Luckily for future generations of listeners, each iteration of Bowie has been influential on a different generation of artists, from grunge to electronic to punk and so on. What other artists have this same distinction? Sounding wholly different over their life, while still maintaining the quality of his music? That’s the bewildering part about David Bowie: his reinventions rarely sounded like missteps.

Take, for example, his 1971 album, Hunky Dory. This was an album, that could very nearly be considered folk rock, in a way that probably shaped part of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, especially after he called Dylan by name in one of the songs on the album. At the same time, it heralded some powerful anthem rock songs. In fact, few of his albums could be considered more diverse than this one. The very next year, he puts out Ziggy Stardust. As a space rock epic dripping with glam rock theatricality, it could not be more different from his previous album. This is one example of many where Bowie was simply light-years ahead of his time. Are we sure he was human?

The song, “Under Pressure,” is particularly special. When, in the history of music, have two more eccentric AND popular musicians performed together? The question is rhetorical; the answer is never. Queen’s Freddie Mercury--possibly the single most exciting performer ever--working with David Bowie is a musical team we will likely never see matched. Two icons in their showmanship as well as their sexuality, performing near the height of their careers. I can honestly not think of another combination of artists that would have been so impactful together1. It is tragic that they never performed the song live together.

Bowie continued to surprise right up to his death. With his new album, Blackstar, he again sounded like a different person. I freely admit that the album as a whole will take some getting used to for me; I didn’t immediately take to it as others have. As with his earlier albums, it takes several listens to get accustomed to the sound he demonstrates. But there are certainly some individual tracks which stand out and highlight Bowie’s prowess as a songwriter.

It is interesting to mourn the loss of a person you have never met2. Not wrong, of course, just a little absurd. Such is the personal nature of music that some musicians really do command that sense that you actually know the person. In this way, the death of musicians--especially those with long and full careers--can feel particularly shocking. Michael Jackson stunned the world a few years ago; more recently, Lou Reed had a similar effect on a lot of people, myself included3. It is only fitting that David Bowie, who had the capability to be shocking in his life, could shock people with his death. Take care, Starman.

1 I’m not speaking hyperbolically here; the closest I can come is Jay-Z and Kanye working together, and even that doesn’t have the same level of importance.↩
2 Bowie’s death was also days before losing Alan Rickman. It’s been a hard month.↩
3 Lemmy died a month ago, and I just read that Glenn Frey passed away this week. Motörhead and Eagles fans can certainly relate.↩