After an extended battle with cancer, rock legend David Bowie passed away at the age of 69, days after the release of his final record, Blackstar
Saturday night, long before the news of Bowie's death would reach me through Facebook and Twitter leaving me in a state of damn near total shock, my roommate and I listened to Blackstar
. My roommate is a 39 year old former musician and studio technician; I am a 26 year old journalist. I had a post planned for today about the idea that one of the many things that made Bowie special was the way that he crossed generational and genre divides like no one else except perhaps the Beatles and Miles Davis. My roommate, with his wealth of technical knowledge about music, kept pointing out the weird production tricks Bowie and his collaborators were employing on the record. I geeked out on the more amorphous elements of the albums...the lyricism, the atmosphere, the distinct sonic touchstones. We had beers. We sang Bowie's praises, and we wound up sharing our favorite music for the next five hours. It was one of the best evenings I'd had in ages.
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through
A lot of things can make a genius. Bob Dylan was a genius because popular music has never had a better storyteller. Few guitarists have ever changed the way we think about the guitar as much as Jimi Hendrix. Did any artist ever translate the sound of pure ecstasy quite the way that Miles Davis could with his trumpet and the rest of his band? And perhaps no other artist checked off as many boxes on the genius list as David Bowie. Through a host of personas, styles, and ever-shifting career moves, David Bowie didn't simply create one of the singular discographies in 20th century music, he brought the avant-garde of sexuality, gender expression, and fashion into the mainstream.
For most folks that love music to the very marrow of their bones, David Bowie touched them in some way over the years. The first Bowie track I ever heard was "Space Oddity." My dad bought me Bowie's greatest hits for Christmas as a teenager. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. It starts off with the sparse understatement of folk, but, hey, what are these military drums doing here? And then the strings arrive, and the track explodes into the melancholic, nostalgic stratosphere. It is perhaps the
anthem of the alienated and isolated. Who hasn't had a moment where they felt the disconnect and distance of Bowie's Major Tom, floating in his tin can by himself above the Earth, wondering where our friends, family, loves, and other emotional anchors have gone? In one track, he fired a vulnerable salvo of rock theatrics into the imagination of millions for decades to come.
Though I'm past
One hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
And Bowie had an endless well of tracks and albums that moved. His 'Berlin' trilogy was a heroin-fueled journey through Cold War angst that saw Bowie and Brian Eno lay the groundwork for the golden age of electronic music. "Young Americans" was Bowie's ode to American Motown music (and featured a very young Luther Vandross on backup vocals). "Changes" reminded kids (and adults) everywhere that their problems mattered, and that at least someone was listening to what they had to say. He worked with Trent Reznor for a dark horse contender of one of the best grunge songs of the 90s, "I'm Afraid of Americans." Bowie's constant reinventions weren't one man shamelessly trying to cash in on the trends and fads after his heyday. It was a renaissance man empathizing with sounds he heard and loved (often by artists who counted Bowie himself as a major inspiration) and providing his own spaceman interpretation. More than any other musician of his (or any other generation), Bowie wasn't simply in love with his own music; he loved the idea of music and all of its forms, and through his discography alone, one could chart the course of the trajectory of most of the popular music of the last forty years.
But once Bowie reached the elder statesman phase of his career, he started to give back in consistently unexpected ways. When I first heard "Reflektor" by Arcade Fire and Bowie showed up, I started to make involuntary squeals of delight. Here was my favorite band of the 21st century -- a band that used ornate theatricality in service of often wounded emotionality -- working with the most theatrical rock star of his generation. Bowie said that his final record was highly influenced by Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly
. It's remarkable how, even in his 60s, Bowie never started to disparage the music that came after him ala some of his more notable peers. He embraced it. He was a man that never ceased to be full of warmth and passion.
I will sit right down
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude
Over my head
As someone with my own deep well of melancholy and sense of alienation and who never fit neatly into the gender binary and gender presentation, Bowie's importance to me extended far beyond just his contributions to music. Bowie broadcasted that you could be androgynous, that you could be queer, that you could be different
, and you could still be special. You could still transcend the mundane ordinariness of existence.
And perhaps, above all else, that was what made Bowie special. He was transcendent. I shared this anecdote in my review of Reflektor
, but it's a worthy note to end on, and I'll just copy it here.
There's a moment early in the film adaptation of
The Perks of Being a Wallflower where the three young leads are riding through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into Pittsburgh as "Heroes" by David Bowie blasts on their radio. Emma Watson's troubled Sam climbs into the bed of the pick-up truck her step-brother is driving and spreads her arms out to face the wind while a very stoned Charlie (played by Logan Lerman) turns and says, "I feel infinite."
There is no doubt that David Bowie is infinite now.
Though nothing, will keep us together
We could steal time, just for one day
We can be Heroes, for ever and ever
What d'you say?