The first thing I heard today was that David Bowie had died. Literally the first thing: the buzz of my alarm, then the radio announcing his death followed by the first piano notes of “Changes.” I flipped around the dial a little bit this morning and his voice and his music is everywhere, more than usual.
But then, his music is always around somewhere. Throughout his career, Bowie was often on the cusp of whatever was exciting and new, making music that was never ahead of it’s time, but exactly of it. Which is a high compliment: people ahead of their time never get the recognition they deserve and people behind the times don’t deserve what they get.
But Bowie, more than anyone I can think of, encapsulated his times. Everything from the hard rock of Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane the soul-infused Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, the moody, angry soundscapes of Station to Station, Lodger and Low, not to mention his high water marks: Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Scary Monsters. That run, man. We might never get a streak of records that mean so much to so many, over such a long period of time.
Even right from the earliest days were signs of what would come: the crashing mod rock of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” presages his glam era, a mix of adolescent insecurity and young arrogance. And it was there throughout witness: “Jump They Said,” a haunting song inspired by his brother’s suicide, released in 1993.
Although his career began with several false starts, with early bands like The Riot Squad and a folksy debut album, his first success came with 1969’s “Space Oddity,” which first capitalized on the lunar missions, but later became a classic in it’s own right. This could’ve even been another false start: next was The Man Who Sold the World, a record that went nowhere on release. But then a wonderful streak of singles: “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” and finally, “Ziggy Stardust.”
This is the period everyone has a take on: the flamboyantly bisexual, transgressive, gender flouting period starting when Bowie wore a dress on the cover of The Man… and ending with everyone copying him, even Todd Rundgren, as Bowie went on to the next thing. In the years between, he cranked out some of the best music of any musician’s career and rejuvenated his idols at the same time: Lou Reed’s Transformer and Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power wouldn’t exist without Bowie’s help.
As the decade went on, the streak continued: the glam excess of Aladdin Sane and dystopian soul/funk of Diamond Dogs. He went fully into soul with Young Americans which segued into coked-out, smoggy haze of Station to Station, a record of slick guitars and soulless vocals that masked some of his sharpest material; when he poured himself into this music, as he did while touring in early 1976, it’s almost too powerful to take in.
At the same time, these weren’t great times for him personally: there are stories about how strung out he was, all of them probably apocryphal, but he moved to the then-divided city of Berlin with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, setting another run: the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes, and Lodger takes everything and brings it to a new level.
Both Eno’s ambient experiments and Bowie’s rock inclinations come to fruition with Heroes, a record that’ll never sound stale. The second half’s soundscapes prefigure almost every ambient record made since, while the brash, industrial rock on the first half has echoes in everything from Nine Inch Nails to U2. And ending with the light touch of “Secret Life of Arabia” was a stroke of genius, a happy ending to a tough record to take at times, with songs about alcoholism, self-martyring, and dying in each other’s arms.
He ended the decade with Scary Monsters, taking everything that came before and reshaping it with everything he’d learned: just listen to the remakes of “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit,” which give the originals a surge of energy. Major Tom came back, but as a strung-out addict; the slick dance beats of “Fashion” called back to “Young Americans,” but with a harsh, New Wave edge. Best of all is the driving “It’s No Game,” with screamed Japanese lyrics and Bowie taking his voice past it’s limits, his singing turning into a painful screech, and finally into a Johnny Rotten-like sneer: “put a bullet in my brain and it makes all the papers.” And finally: “Shut up! Shut up!” and the song screeches to a halt.
Over the next years were further strokes of genius: singles like “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” “Absolute Beginners,” and “Under Pressure.” Records like Let’s Dance or Black Tie, White Noise. Live appearances like The Glass Spiders tour and the VH1 Storytellers episode. And, finally, his collaborations with musicians as diverse as Pat Metheny, Nine Inch Nails, and Arcade Fire. All are rewarding and well worth your time.
As I was saying to a friend the other night: we were lucky to have Bowie in prime, but even luckier he continued to grow and challenge himself. I was hot-and-cold on The Next Day a few years ago, but I found myself listening to it again recently and enjoyed a lot more than I remembered: even the bonus tracks have a swagger. In a world where Rod Stewart went from the blistering rock of The Faces to singing standards and courting the baby boomer market, we were luckier than we realize to have Bowie for as long as we did, making music as good as he did right up until the end with Blackstar: a fragile, pensive wave goodbye from a star slowly burning out.
But this one decade is where his influence primarily comes from, where his music meant so much to so many. Today, as I drove around, it was everywhere. Testimonials from all sorts of people on Twitter, all over every radio station I flipped around on. I even saw it in the dyed hairstyle on a young lady I saw out the window.
When Elvis died, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote how nobody will ever mean so much to so many people. Like he was on many things, Bangs was wrong: we saw a similar collective outreach when Michael Jackson died. With Bowie, things feel different. He meant so much, on so many levels to so many people: the odd ones, people who didn’t fit in and felt different. Today feels different: I woke up to a snowstorm, with new, unfamiliar shapes covering everything. I think I’m going to go for a walk outside and listen to side two of Heroes once more.