David Bowie, 1947-2016.
“We can be heroes…”
It’s weird. I’m at a loss about what to say about David Bowie’s death. I’ve never been a “superfan”, but I always had a massive amount of admiration for the man (and the Berlin Trilogy is freaking genius). Frankly, his death has shocked me more than I would’ve expected it to; David Bowie wasn’t a person, he was an abstract concept, and those can’t die, right? How is this even possible?
I want to add something poignant to the discussion, but I feel like I’m only able to scratch the surface. I guess the best I can do is talk about what he and his art meant to me personally.
I somewhat fell backwards into David Bowie fandom.
When I was growing up, his music wasn’t especially present in our house; my parents were not fans (at least, as far as I could tell. If they dressed up like Aladdin Sane and sang “Starman” on weekends, they managed to hide it from me). And for a big chunk of the 80’s, his music wasn’t radio-omnipresent – at least until “Let’s Dance” came out. And then he kind of dropped off my radio radar again after that.
Then, of course, I got to college. That, as it often does, Changed Things.
It dawned on me that basically every artist I liked paid a debt to Bowie. Some had gone so far as to record Bowie covers. So, I thought, maybe I should check this stuff out.
Suddenly a lot of stuff made sense. I could hear the indelible influence on the music of The Cure, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and all those contemporaries whose music filled my CD shelves. I could hear it in Kraftwerk (and vice versa). His (at the time) modern stuff continued to push boundaries, and while I never really twigged to the art-rock concept of “Outside” I couldn’t help but admire the transformation that made “Heart’s Filthy Lesson” and “Hallo Spaceboy” possible. And then I basically wore out my CD of “Earthling” through repeated plays in my dirty car. He was a guy who had left a mark on the music world and could’ve retired, or if nothing else, retread the same glorious albums few more times, and still walked away a legend. But he chose not to. He chose to keep reinventing himself and trying new things. It was glorious.
I started listening to his older stuff. It wasn’t all brilliant, of course (“Glass Spiders”…hmmm), and some of it may have been at the time but hadn’t aged well. (and his personal life was often just weird). And yet he was always…audacious. It was clear early on that his concern was rarely just “making music” but instead pushing his own personal envelope (and, in “Labyrinth”, the seams on his pants).
I have tremendous respect for that. Even the songs I don’t like, I can at least understand for what they’re trying to do. He took a lot of artistic risks and made a lot of unexpected moves – selling bonds for his royalties, embracing the internet for music distro long before anyone recognized its potential. It always seemed that no matter how forward-thinking you were as an artist, he was always uncannily already a few steps ahead. He did what I always aspire to – he kept challenging himself artistically and personally, even when it’s sometimes ill-advised or risky.He made pop albums when people expected high art, he made concept albums when people expected pop, he was an actor when it wasn’t cool for rock stars to be actors.
I’ll never write a song like “Life On Mars” or “Fame”, nor will I try. I’ll never sing like the Thin White Duke or dress like a Diamond Dog. I’ll never duet with Trent Reznor. I’ll never be co-produced by Tony Visconti and Brian Eno. But I’m sure someday I will be sitting there, in front of my keyboard, thinking about a particular artistic quandary, and I’ll ask myself:
“What would David Bowie do?”
And of course…