The great Rock ‘n Roll icon David Bowie has passed away at the age of 69 after a year and a half battle with liver cancer. Somehow this feels liken an especially shocking and premature death. Bowie represented youth and eternal transformation for so long it doesn’t quite seem possible that he embarked on his final journey and left the rest of us behind to face a duller, grayer world without him.
Though one couldn’t say he had been a major musical force for over a decade, Bowie always seemed omnipresent in the ether of Rock music and pop culture. He was so far ahead of the curve in terms of gender bending, performance art and sonic experimentation that the public and critics never really had time to catch up with him before he was on to the next thing. This made high critical praise somewhat scarce in his most productive period of rapid-fire evolution during the 1970s but his legion of fans almost always loved his chameleonic ways and rewarded him with a lot of big hits. From his breakout “Space Oddity” where he jettisoned his folk rock persona in favor of cryptic, beautifully operatic sic-fi, which perfectly dovetailed with the zeitgeist of the Space Race; to his first really fully realized persona, the androgynous Ziggy Stardust on the amazing Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that helped move Glam to the forefront of Rock styles for a time thanks to Mick Ronson’s sizzling guitar licks on such high octane classics as the title track, “Suffragete City” and “Starman”; the less popular but still very good follow-up Alladin Sane, which featured the swinging “The Gene Jeanie” and the scorching “Panic In Detroit”; Bowie’s prescient farewell to Glam, Diamond Dogs with the immortal “Rebel, Rebel” and searing title track; and Young Americans, creating a chapter unto itself by putting Ziggy to rest and delving deeply into R&B and Soul by recording the album at Philadelphia’s Sigma Studios with a large backing band of Rhythm & Blues aces — it produced the two classics that bookend the album, “Young Americans” and “Fame”. Looking back, any critic worth his salt would have to conclude that after all the typical handwringing during those days over what was or wasn’t “authentic” Rock ‘n Roll this amazingly productive period goes down as some of the best and sonically well made music of that or any other era. Listen to it again now and I think you’ll find that most of it hasn’t dated at all. There is a crispness there, a clean feel in production and arrangement, in lyrical content and vocal delivery that just doesn’t age. It’s youth, it’s sexuality, it’s euphoria, it’s empathy. In short, it’s immortal.
For another artist, this prime early-mid 70s period would have been enough and they would have been satisfied to coast and tour on these hits for years to come. But Bowie, like all the greats, had more to give and more skins to shed. He donned the mantle of the Thin White Duke for 1976’s Station to Station, a sort of continuation of the extraterrestrial persona he created in Nicolas Roeg’s cult sic-fi classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth. But he was also battling a serious cocaine addiction and Bowie’s behavior became increasingly erratic. So despite the success of hits like “Golden Years” and “TVC15” Bowie abandoned the problematic Thin White Duke and made an unexpected physical move, first to Switzerland and then to West Berlin to get clean and get away from the hothouse environments of LA and the UK. He subsequently entered what could arguably called his most fascinating period. Collaborating for the first time with Brian Eno, as well as his most regular producer Tony Viscointi, Bowie produced Low in 1977 and then rapidly followed that up the same year with Heroes and finally Lodger in 1979. These formed his “Berlin trilogy” and while the hits were harder to come by due to the challenging nature of the music — “Sound and Vision” on Low, the title track from Heroes — they are astonishing breakthroughs in Rock music. Low and Heroes in particular are of a part of the best Alternative music of the 1970s: uncompromising, innovative in production and arrangements and appropriative of percolating musical trends — in this case, the synthesizer revolution being spearheaded by Krautrockers like Can and Kraftwerk — in the finest sense of those words. It is also fair to say that Bowie would never reach those kinds of creative heights again.
But, as such a visually trendsetting and provocative artist, Bowie remained more than relevant at the dawn of the MTV era, with the heavily played videos for “Let’s Dance, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, all from Let’s Dance (1983), co-produced with Bowie by Chic’s Nile Rodgers. In fact, Bowie was an inveterate collaborator producing and gaining inspiration from Iggy Pop and Lou Reed — on the latter’s Transformer (1972) it was difficult to tell who had influenced who more. And in the 80s Bowie made a veritable fetish of collaboration: “Under Pressure” with Queen in 1981 then a string of pop hits with Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Pat Metheny. It was almost as if he were now relinquishing any dominant persona whatsoever and preferred to be just part of a team of players, not the star. His decision to be in the band Tin Machine but not as the true frontman seemed to confirm this new reluctance to put himself forward, carve off new facets and expose himself in the highly Brechtian manner of years past.
Even past his prime, Bowie remained exceedingly active with a mania to create and work on art, film and music with other artists. But it is for his amazing achievements of the 1970s that Major Tom, Ziggy, the Man Who Fell to Earth, The Thin White Duke and the Berlin Lodger will always remain in our collective cultural consciousness. It is a result of those indelible, seminal creations and the vibrant music that emerged from his constant pushing and probing that Bowie’s passing seems so very abrupt and shocking. The characters he birthed remain alive in our minds today even if he sloughed off those particular personas years ago. Driven to create, Bowie could not help but become restless with his creations and retire them in favor of something and someone new. The pace of his self-reinventions during the decade of the 1970s is head-spinning when viewed in retrospect. Perhaps he got tired of always portraying “the other”, some kind of semi-alien creature, a product of but not a part of our society as a whole, reflecting back at us like a deliciously distorted mirror. Eventually I imagine he just wanted to be David Bowie and maybe even just David Robert Jones, an artist yes but a flesh and blood human being with “regular” tastes and moods, a two-time father and a more down to earth bon vivant with a supermodel wife. But by playing out his artistic impulses prior to that in a very public, very theatrical way, Bowie managed to fuse Rock ‘n Roll with performance art to create something that was both sonically and visually new, exciting and ultimately extremely satisfying. He seemed like nothing so much as a one man self-propelled cultural explosion for a while there, where he might baffle you with his choices but it would always be imperative that you keep up with whatever Bowie was doing, wearing and singing.
And so the best of his work still remains. The great artist leaves behind the works he has created for the masses to enjoy even as he himself must inexorably move on to the next phase of his creativity driven not to repeat himself. But the works remain for our enjoyment, the same as a given period of work for Bruce Nauman or Richard Serra or any truly innovative fine artist. David Bowie created more than his fair share of genius works through pain, experimentation, self-exploration and pop culture telepathy. The best of what he leaves behind can only be called great art. To listen to the best of Bowie is to be transformed and swept up, not just to a time or place in our past but to timeless moods and the very vibrations of life itself, and that’s why it doesn’t really age. It just keeps orbiting the Earth and dropping in for occasional visits, a transporter beam to sonic bliss, vicarious thrills and unconditional understanding of our own unique strangeness and individuality. Just like Major Tom, David Bowie is still out there somewhere and always will be.