How could I not write about David Bowie this week? The music legend died of liver cancer Sunday, just two days after (what would be) his final and 25th album, “Blackstar,” was released on his 69th birthday. He was always so theatrical, it seems like the equivalent of a graceful bow as the curtain drops on an amazing performance of a life.
Everyone has a different view of Bowie because there are so many roles he embodied. You can extract so many characters from the same artist. He went from folk, to outer space, to heavy metal, to blues and back again and everywhere else. He has influenced so many artists because he has tried so many things. And you can see his stylistic fingerprints all over the careers of countless musicians. (Don’t make me name names, as today is not the day for that.) He didn’t seem concerned with consistency in the slightest. That would be an insult if directed at others. I mean it as a compliment.
To properly enjoy the work of David Bowie you have to understand him as a storyteller. Whatever itch Bowie scratches in my brain lives right next to the part that enjoys books by science fiction writers like Phillip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein. I have the same craving for fantasy only someone as talented as Bowie could provide. Bowie took his music in so many different directions, which sounds simpler than it actually is. As a listener, you were willing to be pulled in any direction, narrative or music he chose just because you trusted his narration. If few have ever tried what he did, even fewer have succeeded.
You don’t release more than two dozen albums and come out on top every time. Yet the strength and intention behind his sonic exploration carried him through even his less heralded ideas. I’d be lying if I said Bowie was ever my favorite artist. But for my entire life, his songs have caught my ear here and there and refused to leave. I can’t count how many times in a row I listened to “Golden Years” after I first heard it, but it was a whole bunch. I remember singing “Space Oddity” in a group at karaoke one night. I recall jamming “Ziggy Stardust” with friends on guitars. I was interested in the “Let’s Dance” album because Stevie Ray Vaughan played on it early in his career. I wait for the climactic, “wham, bam,” every time I hear “Suffragette City,” and it still gets me every time.
For years to come, people will be just getting into David Bowie. I am still just biting around the edges. I would call myself an absolute Bowie novice. I only just heard the whole “The Man Who Sold The World” album just a year or two ago. No sooner had I finished “The Width of a Circle” was I dumbstruck by Mick Ronson on guitar and Tony Visconti on bass. And this is an album I’ve heard pieces of before, and this album existed years before I did. But I’m just now hearing about it, and so will others in perpetuity. A baby born tomorrow will hear Bowie harmonizing with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy” during some future Christmas season for the first time. Have you heard the isolated vocal track Bowie performed with Freddie Mercury for Queen’s “Under Pressure”? Today could be the day you go to YouTube and hear that for the first time. There’s something quite beautiful about that. I listen to Bowie and think it’s not an exaggeration to say he is one of the main reasons I’m thankful for recorded music.