Where do you even begin when writing about someone like David Bowie?
A few nights ago, while driving home from work, I was listening to Blackstar, Bowie’s newly released album. It was released just three days ago, on his 69th birthday. So strange to think that, in the car on the way home, just ten minutes prior to hearing the news, I was listening to new David Bowie music and unbeknownst to me, it was the last time I would be hearing new music from the legend. The news of his death came as a bigger shock to me than any other celebrity death in my lifetime. How could this mystical, alien figure not be immortal?
David Bowie has no doubt impacted my life more than any other musician or celebrity. Those who know me might cry, “What about Jack White or others?” Let me explain. The first time I heard Bowie’s music, it was on Rock Band 1, where ‘Suffragette City’ was featured. The game helped me to discover multiple different artists and kick started my obsession with music. However, I was not an initial fan of Bowie or ‘Suffragette City’. On first impression, I didn’t like his voice, it was too high pitch for my taste and I thought the song was annoying. Luckily, my music tastes in 6th grade didn’t stick with me for long. Around 8th grade, in 2008, I discovered the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, from which ‘Suffragette’ hails and everything changed. For some reason, the irritation with his voice was instantly gone and the album plunged me into a deep lust and love for music. The album would springboard my journey through Bowie’s work, both in music and film, as well as fleshing out my musical tastes throughout high school and still into college.
Throughout high school, I struggled with a sexual identity crisis. I was bullied for it and I was called ‘faggot’ and many other names that no one should ever be called, simply because people did not understand or didn’t care. I dealt with depression because of this and it also lead me to becoming more withdrawn and detached, affecting my relationships with family, friends, and a future relationship. It might sound strange to some, but David Bowie was a huge part of getting through that time in my life. People self-medicate when they are hurting and luckily mine was music. Though the world might look at you and think of you in one way, it ultimately doesn’t matter what the fuck other people think; Bowie showed me that.
As I struggled, I still had the music to rely on. Of course there was always The White Stripes or The Beatles or Nirvana, but Bowie stayed in a special place in my heart. Throughout high school, I slowly discovered Hunky Dory, his ‘Berlin Trilogy’, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Aladdin Sane. Despite this, it seemed the more I studied his work, the less in fact I knew, but that’s Bowie for you. The man has always been a mystery since he arrived on Earth and in death I figure he will only become more and more mystic.
To give you some context and overview: his first album, David Bowie (1967), was and still is awful to this day. In order to reinvent himself, he started to trend towards psychedelic, releasing Space Oddity (also confusingly, titled David Bowie) two years later, producing his first hit. He then released The Man Who Sold The World (yes, that’s not actually a Nirvana song), which departed from his psychedelic-folk, beginning his transformation to more traditional blues and rock. Some critics claim that the album is the birth of glam rock, which Bowie would go on to perfect and embody in the 70’s. Hunky Dory, my favorite of Bowie’s and one of my favorite albums of all time, followed this. With the album, he reverted back to his folk influences, yet furthered his yearning for blending different genres together, a fascination with outer space, and experimentation.
Although he had already released ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Changes’, and ‘Life on Mars?’ at this point, David Bowie had not truly arrived on planet earth until 1972, when he released Ziggy Stardust. The album tells the story of Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, who was sent to earth with a message of peace and love, yet becomes quite fond of sex and drugs, ultimately being killed by both his own habits as well as by the fans that the alien/rockstar inspired. The album was met with controversy because of the rumors surrounding Bowie’s sexuality, the album’s social commentary, as well as the arrival of the glam rock scene- which confounded parents around the nation. Although the character dies at the end of the concept album, Bowie kept the alter ego throughout the next few years, ending with the concept album Diamond Dogs where he attempted to create a combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and his own glam inspired artistry.
Later into the 70’s, Bowie would complete the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, some of which were contributions intended for the film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, but were deemed unsuitable by director Nicolas Roeg. Further into the 80’s, Bowie would transfer into funk and dance-pop with notable albums Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance. He would release albums consistently until 2003, when he reduced his output enormously. David Bowie became a whisper. Yes, he still was an enigmatic titan of music, but where was he? We still saw him or heard him in places such as Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige or on Scarlett Johansson’s music debut, but he had become a ghost. Why wasn’t he touring, why wasn’t he recording? Many signs pointed to his health. His, ‘A Reality Tour’, which was his last, was ended due to an acutely blocked coronary artery. These health rumors have been consistent in recent years as to why Bowie refused to tour and why his music output became non-existent after 2003. It seemed he was done with stardom or couldn’t make music due to some mysterious illness that was unbeknownst to the public, but in any case, he drifted away from public attention, only adding to his mysticism in turn.
Until January 8th, 2013: his 66th birthday. On that day, Bowie’s website announced a new album, entitled The Next Day. No answers were given for his prolonged absence, just more music, for which we rejoiced. Refusing to do interviews or any public appearances for the album, he reverted to focusing on music videos for the album, in turn, adding more and more to the mysticism of the legend. On one hand we wanted answers; we wanted a tour, we wanted to him cater to us. But on the other hand, if the veil was pulled back we might be shocked or disappointed by what we find behind the curtain, and no one knew this more than Bowie himself.
Days ago, on the third anniversary of the announcement of The Next Day, as well as being his 69th birthday, he released his final album, Blackstar. Influenced by experimental jazz and Kendrick Lamar, the album is pure Bowie at his most confounding. But like the man himself, if you only take a glance, you’ll incorrectly label it as strange and foreign, and possibly even bad. Luckily, this is neither true about the man nor the album. Some have already hailed it as his ‘swan song’ to fans. This was his 25th and final studio album in a career that spanned 54 years.
The world has lost more than a musician today. It has lost a legend, a man not born of this earth. Bowie was not merely an artist or an actor or an effect on pop culture, he was a rarity that every generation hopes for. He embodied things that scared us, things that we might misjudge, sex appeal, rock n’ roll, mystery, genius… the list goes on and on. As director Guillermo del Toro stated early this morning, “Bowie existed so all of us misfits learned that an oddity was a precious thing.”
Rest in peace.
Essential Listening of David Bowie:
Hunky Dory (1971)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
Aladdin Sane (1973)
Diamond Dogs (1974)
Station to Station (1976)
Let’s Dance (1983)
The Next Day (2013)
Space Oddity (Space Oddity)
The Man Who Sold the World (The Man Who Sold the World)
Changes (Hunky Dory)
Life on Mars? (Hunky Dory)
Queen Bitch (Hunky Dory)
Starman (Ziggy Stardust)
Ziggy Stardust (Ziggy Stardust)
Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide (Ziggy Stardust)
Drive-In Saturday (Aladdin Sane)
Time (Aladdin Sane)
The Jean Genie (Aladdin Sane)
Diamond Dogs (Diamond Dogs)
Rebel Rebel (Diamond Dogs)
Fame (Young Americans)
Golden Years (Station to Station)
Sound and Vision (Low)
A New Career In a New Town (Low)
Fashion (Scary Monsters)
Modern Love (Let’s Dance)
Let’s Dance (Let’s Dance)
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (Let’s Dance)
Under Pressure (Queen’s album Hot Space)
The Next Day (The Next Day)
The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (The Next Day)
Where Are We Now? (The Next Day)
Essential Viewing of David Bowie:
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
The Prestige (2006)
Bowie - Flight of the Conchords S1 Ep 6 (2007)
Music Videos for Where Are We Now?, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), The Next Day, Blackstar, and Lazarus