WPGM Commentary: Remembering David Bowie (1947 – 2016)

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Some lesser known facts about David Bowie: His birth name was actually David Jones but he assumed Bowie as a stage name because he didn’t want to be confused with Davey Jones from The Monkees. His first instrument was the saxophone, and he frequently played the instrument on his albums. Contrary to popular belief, his eyes were actually both the same color, but one pupil is permanently dilated as a result of a schoolyard fight as a child.

He actually had a pretty extensive film (and theatre) career outside of the cult classic Labyrinth, including a pretty decent Andy Warhol impression in Basquiat, a supporting role as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and my personal favorite, Nicola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s highly underrated The Prestige, where his first appearance on screen is literally a shot of him walking out of lightning. He even voiced “King Neptune” in a special episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

David Bowie, my favorite musician of all time, passed away on Sunday, January 10, 2016, after battling with cancer for a year and a half. It was only 2 days after his 69th birthday, which saw the release of his 27th and final studio album Blackstar. Up until his death, there had been no published documentation of his struggle with the illness, and judging by initial reactions on the internet, many musicians and industry insiders were just as unaware as the public.

Even legendary producer Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longest and most consistent collaborator in his five-decade long career, said that they had discussed recording another album only a week before his death, but maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised at all; in addition to the absolutely inhumane amount of drugs he consumed – shattering all preconceived notions of what the human body is capable of enduring, his career (especially his final two albums) was filled to the brim with songs alluding to death.

One of his earliest and most culturally significant singles, “Space Oddity” (which the BBC wisely immortalized by using it as a soundtrack for their coverage of the first moon landing), was a harrowing metaphor for debilitating heroin addiction, told as a tale of an astronaut, Major Tom, realizing something has gone wrong and accepting that he is going to die out in space. Many have hypothesized that the title track of The Man Who Sold The World is about a serial killer, while “Running Gun Blues” from that album paints a vivid picture of a soldier dealing with PTSD after killing people in the Vietnam war.

Five Years”, the opening track on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, introduced us to his most famous alter ego, an alien rockstar sent to earth to warn us we only had five years before an apocalypse wiped us all out. Diamond Dogs, a highly underrated, mostly upbeat album remembered mostly for its seminal angst anthem “Rebel Rebel”, literally features a track called “We Are The Dead”, based on a line from Orwell’s 1984 (which the whole album was originally meant to be completely based on), alluding to how the tyrannical agendas of the world’s governmental and financial institutions basically rendered the work class inert, a critique of society which holds just as true now as it ever did.

Nearly every album of Bowie’s discusses death in either a literal or metaphorical sense, and his final two releases are no exception. The opening title track of 2013’s The Next Day, which is in my opinion the greatest comeback album of any rock and roll musician ever, has a chorus which features Bowie yelling “Here I am, not quite dying!” with an energy and intensity unmatched by many of today’s liveliest young stars. Having suffered a serious brain aneurism in the early 2000s, I think it’s safe to assume that even before the cancer diagnosis, he knew his expiration date was approaching.

The Next Day was him coming out of the shadows after a decade of silence to tell the world he wasn’t ready to go yet. Blackstar will undoubtedly go down in history as one of, if not THE greatest sendoff to a contemporary musical artist. Not only is it tragically, beautifully self aware, but it’s completely, authentically Bowie in a way that much of his later career felt like it was lacking.

While many rock musicians (Bowie himself included) struggle to make organically weird music later in their careers, Blackstar feels effortlessly strange and unique, with 40+ minutes of music spread out across only 7 songs. While The Next Day was all guitar-heavy pop music, Blackstar is a synth-and-saxophone-heavy affair, with extended jams and some very dark harmonies and sonic textures.

Lazurus”, the lead single from the album, features a music video which shows Bowie lying in a hospital bed, and then scrambling to write something down on a desk as a skull looks on at him, clearly symbolizing him writing the album as one last testament to his fan before his time was up. In the two days between the album’s release and his passing, I had enough time to absorb it as simply another album of his, and I could already tell it was something special. Now, when listened to, in the context of it serving as a goodbye message, I can safely say it will one day find a place amongst my top 10 favorite Bowie albums list.

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And that is no small feat for someone who recorded as much music as he did. While we can all agree that Bowie had his share of musical missteps, particularly in the 80’s, his run of albums from the late 60s to the late 70’s was hands down the biggest winning streak of any singular rock and roll musician of all time (sorry Beatles). Beyond being flat out great albums, Bowie proved himself as an unparalleled trend-setter, and an unbelievably versatile musical chameleon.

The Man Who Sold The World was hugely influential on the birth of heavy metal, just as Hunky Dory was on piano-pop balladry. Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane managed to immortalize Bowie as THE face of glam-rock, even though he grew out of it relatively quickly. Young Americans was a hugely important album in terms of crossover appeal, demonstrating that a white British man could actually make authentic soul music (although he had a lot of help from John Lennon and a collection of Philadelphia musicians).

My favorite era of the 70’s saw Bowie travelling to Berlin with pals Iggy Pop, Robert Fripp, and Brian Eno and discarding his pop star image for a trio of excellent experimental albums: Low, Heroes and Lodger, the first two which were huge in popularizing the experimental electronic music and “krautrock” that was starting to come into existence with acts like Kraftwerk. And his influence on fashion at this time was just as significant as his influence on music; being one of the first major cultural figures to identify as bisexual, and he single-handedly brought androgyny into the mainstream, inspiring decades of gender-bending, glitter-infused outfits both in the music world and outside of it.

Bowie was also responsible for rejuvenating and accenting the careers of countless other musicians in his time, the extent of which is unknown to most people. While the massive Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” and the goofy Mick Jagger team up is known to most casual listeners, even some of the biggest Iggy Pop fans don’t know that Bowie mixed Raw Power, produced (and co-wrote much of) Lust for Life and The Idiot, or that he briefly toured as Iggy’s keyboard player on those albums. Or that Bowie wrote and produced Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes”, the hit which saved their career and earned them immortality.

The Arcade Fire owe a large part of their mainstream success to Bowie, after he endorsed them as his favorite band and appeared live on stage of their tour for their debut Funeral to sing “Life on Mars”. They later thanked him by having him do guest vocals on title track of their album Reflektor, and are now slated to perform as part of a “parade” in his honor this weekend in New Orleans. Bowie’s influence on the film world will not be forgotten anytime soon either – his son Duncan Jones (who went back to using his father’s real surname after he didn’t want to be known as Zowie Bowie anymore) is now a successful film director, who is handling the big screen adaptation of the massively successful video game Warcraft, which comes out later this year.

Of course there is darkness in David Bowie’s past that must be acknowledged. The drug abuse was so bad that he claims to not even remember recording any of Station to Station, plus the bizarre obsessions with the occult and fascism that he developed in the midst of his addiction. Most disturbing is the case of Lori Maddox, who was confirmed to have had sexual relations with both Bowie and Jimmy Page when she was no older than 14. Bowie himself acknowledged this and expressed deep regret for his actions over the following decades even though Maddox forgave him and has always insisted she was in complete control of her actions, despite being under the legal age of consent.

Author’s note: before sending hate mail I would like you all to know that I am not saying any of this excuses Bowie’s actions in the 70’s. When you go through the list of famous, beloved rock stars, this comes up over and over again. The only reason this kind of stuff is not being reported on for someone like Lemmy, is that it’s already widely accepted that he was a scumbag, whereas Bowie is regarded by most as a saint. I obviously have a strong bias towards believing he was a good person overall because of how much his music means to me on a personal level. This is a dark aspect of his life that I regretfully do not know as much about as I do about his accomplishments, which is what this article is meant to be focused on.

While many of his contemporaries outgrew their drug abuse and womanizing only to become curmudgeonly old men hellbent on trash talking younger artists, Bowie always remained optimistic towards the future of music. In the 80s he became one of the first major artists to call out MTV for not playing black music. In the early 90s he went on record saying that his generation of white male musicians had become “the institution” many of them were originally supposedly fighting against, and that Hip Hop was the only genre in the mainstream where originality was still truly present.

In the late 90s, as downloading was beginning to scare the s**t out of the record industry, he literally started his own web browser (which was short-lived, unfortunately). He also always maintained a great sense of humor about himself, as is evidenced by things like his cameo as a fashion judge in Zoolander, or the music video for his single “The Stars Are Out Tonight” which featured Tilda Swinton being transformed into a Bowie-esque character by several delinquent young females who all exhibit various traits of 70’s era Bowie.

Pitchfork’s review of the new album begins with the line “David Bowie has died many deaths, yet he is still with us”. And even though it was written before his death, I would like to believe that statement is still true. There will undoubtedly be more music released in the following years, reissues, box sets, and a movie at some point. Whether or not any of these things are necessary, or even good – is irrelevant. The world is not ready to let Bowie go. Even if he had lived another 30 years, the world wouldn’t have been ready to accept him leaving then. David Bowie was the first musician I dedicated the time to read an entire book about. He was the first musician I didn’t feel ashamed to admit to friends that I was obsessed with. And now he is the first musician whose death actually brought me to tears.

Some will remember him as the fiery-haired, lightning faced mascot of flamboyant rock and roll. Some will remember him as a deathly skinny drug scumbag addict who may or may not have given a Hitler salute to the press once. Some will remember him as the avante-garde electronic composer, or as the multi-instrumentalist technological wiz. Some will only remember him as the guy Nirvana covered that one time, or as the Goblin King from Labyrinth.

Personally I will remember him as the guy who allegedly did weird shit like give Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor an aborted “elephant-man-esque” fetus in a jar, or who got kicked out of Iggy Pop’s rehab for showing up and offering cocaine while he was still in treatment. David Bowie didn’t just have one singular legacy as a musician, he had a multitude of them. He had a vocal range that could stretch from a deep bluesy growl to an operatic wail, and anywhere in between. He was like ten people at once at any given time.

He said that the various characters he developed were initially methods of coping with stagefright; if he could pretend to be someone else, he could perform with more confidence. His dedication to delivering music to his fans was so strong it superceded everything in his life, up until the very end. Up until the very end of his life he was still recording demos and even doing photo shoots. He was THE ultimate rock star, and you can remember him however you want, just remember there will never be anyone like him again.

Words by Nick Hart

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