As the saying goes, this one is gonna leave a mark. Or perhaps better said, this loss is going to leave a void.
The world lost a Titan of rock and roll over the weekend with the passing of David Bowie. I was shocked and saddened when my dearest, oldest friend texted me early Monday morning to give me the news. “I read the news today, oh boy…” I had several friends call or text me about the loss to see how I was handling it. I once wrote a letter to Rolling Stone magazine on a cover article they’d done on Bowie during his 10 year “hiatus” from recording (prior to “The Next Day”) which was published in the next issue. Thus, my fandom of Bowie was somewhat more “public”. I had purchased “Blackstar” his brilliant, and alas final, album on Friday to review in this very blog. The words “hauntingly beautiful” were already on the tip of my tongue but with Bowie’s passing, the emphasis may be on the hauntingly part. Monday night, I poured a glass of fine bourbon, put on “Hunky Dory” and closed my eyes, focusing all my attention on that voice.
Oddly I saw part of the Golden Globes on Sunday night, something I rarely watch. I saw Tom Hanks present an award to Denzel Washington. One of the things that stuck with me from Hanks’ speech was that the greatest of the great only need one name. Bogart, Brando, Nicholson, DeNiro… the list went on. It was a great point and frankly, could just as easily be applied to the greats of rock and roll: Mick, Keith (or Keef if you’d rather), John, Paul, George & Ringo, Elton, Ozzy, Rod, Bruce, and of course, Bowie. He was a true genius, innovator, musical chameleon, unpredictable artist. He was the Pablo Picasso of rock. He was the King of Glam rock and the inventor of several other genres. He could play guitar, keyboards, and saxophone. He produced and helped the careers of Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Iggy Pop. He was a fashion icon and an accomplished actor. I won’t go into the mime thing, but yes he was a mime. This has all been said in countless articles. The one thing I fail to see mentioned – the guy’s music simply Rocks. Is there any other artist who has dabbled in as many different styles and done so on such a successful level? I think not. He experimented with many forms of music, but what always brought it home for me was that amazing voice. He could do so much with his vocal instrument – even in the context of one song – that most singers can’t do in a career.
I think the thing that made Bowie so universally revered is that he was the champion of the outcast. He sang a lot of songs about outer space and his most famous persona was that of an alien rock star from another planet. For me, that was all just metaphor for feeling out of place. He made all outcasts feel welcome. Who hasn’t spent part of their teenage years feeling that exact way, like an outcast. He was an early hero to the LGBT community and championed black music on MTV. He was the first artist who was widely popular who said, in essence, “it’s ok to think what you think, fuck who you fuck, and dress how you dress…It’s ok to be different or weird.”
I was in high school before I was even aware of Bowie. 20/20 News Magazine on ABC did a spot on his newest album, “Scary Monsters” and they played parts of the video from “Ashes to Ashes”. It was a trip-y, arty video where Bowie was wandering on some alien landscape, followed by chicks dressed as nuns. Oh, and he was dressed like an alien Pagliacci, the sad clown. He was the first artist, with the possible exception of Black Sabbath, who scared the shit out my parents. They were watching the video scratching their heads. “Was he on drugs?”, or worse in their minds, “Is he gay?” Or “Perhaps both?” It was thrilling to see my parents that freaked out. “Scary Monsters” was immediately purchased and brought into the house and played loudly. Nobody put on any make-up or a dress (we were lower case rebels, not “Rebel Rebel”material, it was Kansas after all), but the folks kept a closer eye on my brother and I.
When I was in college the awful movie “Cat People” came out and I bought the soundtrack only to hear Bowie’s title track. It remains in high rotation to this day. That led me to “Let’s Dance” his then current album which sent me hurdling through his catalog. “Hunky Dory” remains a favorite. “Ziggy”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Young Americans” and the Berlin Trilogy soon followed. Only the Beatles have a varied back catalog like Bowie. “Station to Station” is one my favorite albums, although the critics will tell you it was a “transitional” album for Bowie.
Shortly after college I lost touch with Bowie. I’d hear an occasional single but he got stuck trying to replicate the success of “Let’s Dance” and hit a bit of a slump. It wasn’t all bad, “I’m Afraid of Americans” is another fantastic song that I still play to scare my daughter. As the past century came to a close Bowie started to work with long time collaborator Tony Visconti again and put out a trio of albums that I absolutely loved. I totally reconnected with Bowie. It all began with “Hours” which was sadly ignored. “Heathen” followed up in 2002 and it is a stone cold, late career classic. “Reality” came a year later and was equally as strong. I was lucky enough to see Bowie on the “Reality” tour and he actually played “Station to Station”. I almost pissed myself. The wife, who prefers shorter songs, was not as impressed. Oh well. I am so thankful to have gotten to see him live. He was as charismatic a live performer as I’ve ever seen.
Those albums, what I’d call the “Late Career Trilogy” was widely and wrongly ignored by the public. As I’ve been shuffling through my entire Bowie catalog these past few days, every time a song from that period comes up, I look up and think, “Damn, that’s good”. Maybe our tepid reception of those three albums caused him to disappear for almost a decade. The world needed to be reminded how important he was. Absence makes the heart grow fonder… Of course his health was also in question, especially his heart.
I was so thrilled in 2013 when Bowie returned, seemingly out of nowhere with “The Next Day”. Critics complained it was retro but when your best music is some of the greatest music of all time, why not go retro. It a harkened back to the Berlin Trilogy but sounded fresh, new.
And now, Bowie has left us with a “farewell” note in the form of his new album, “Blackstar”. I had heard it was experimental and it is. I defy you to find any artist, in any medium, as willing to turn everything on it’s head the way Bowie did. I especially defy you to find an artist so willing to create without caution at 69 years old. To create without fear or concern about critical or commercial reaction is so rare any more. I was initially worried when I heard “Blackstar” was heavily influenced by jazz. I’m not smart enough for jazz. I can sit in a club and bob my head while drinking an Old Fashion and pretend I know if it’s good or not but that’s the extent of my jazz experience. There are elements of jazz in this music, most notably the saxophone of Donny McCaslin but it’s nothing to be afraid of. Its like Mick Gerson’s piano on “Aladdin Sane”, it holds the album together. The title track is a 10 minute epic, with Bowie’s voice coming through a gauzy filter. I was actually reminded of “Station to Station” another 10 minute epic. That’s not to say this music is retro or like anything he’s done before. He was clearly looking forward. “Lazarus” and the shocking video that came with it was clearly Bowie attempting to write us a goodbye note. It’s amazingly moving and my favorite song on the album. Critics will likely praise this album more now that Bowie has passed, but I felt it was brilliant, dark and edgy even before it was put in such extreme context by his death.
My world, the very universe itself feels like it shrank a little bit on Monday. There have been a lot of people who have emulated Bowie, who try to do what he did, but there will never be another David Bowie. One of the all time greats, one of the Titans has passed. Thank God he left “Blackstar” for us. It’s a hell of an album. I am left wondering, since this album opened up so many possibilities, what might have been…
My condolences go out to his family and his close friends. He gave me and all of us so much joy, so much music and yes, that is how we will remember him. But perhaps tonight, pour something strong, wander out into the clear, cold winter sky and look to the stars. Bowie always did and that is how I will honor him. R.I.P. David Bowie.