It’s really weird when someone like David Bowie dies, because he’s one of those people who seems immortal, like they’ll be around forever; like he’s such a permanent part of the cultural landscape that he couldn’t possibly not be there anymore.
It’s as if the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty were suddenly gone from Paris or New York.
It is partly because he was already a cultural icon before I even came into the world; so for someone like me, he has always been there. And while I’ve been personally hit much harder in the past by the deaths of people like Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon or Amy Winehouse – because I was much more actively into their work and much more attached to them as their careers were unfolding – the passing of someone like Bowie feels more incongruous, like there’s a glitch in the matrix. The same could be said for the likes of Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson; David Bowie is the same – a personality, or a cult of personality, who seems almost too big for mortality.
Like other great artists or innovators whose most famous work occurred before I was even born, I had to discover Bowie in a gradual, non-linear fashion. But he was so famous and so visually memorable when I was a kid that I knew who he was long before I actually started discovering his music in any meaningful way. He was so culturally ever-present that my first exposure to him wasn’t The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but was his iconic role in the cult 80’s kids film Labyrinth. I imagine the same would’ve been true for a lot of people my age.
Songs that are so pervasive as ‘Starman’, ‘Rebel, Rebel’ or ‘Space Oddity’ are works that many of us assimilate and absorb almost unconsciously for a long time. I knew and loved ‘Starman’ long before I even understood it was a David Bowie song, the same way I thought ‘The End’ was an utterly amazing piece of music but was too young to know who The Doors or Jim Morrison were. When someone’s work becomes so pervasive that it’s like a part of the planet’s atmosphere, that’s a level of success and penetration most musicians or writers can’t even begin to conceive of.
People of course cite Bowie as their cultural icon or as someone who changed their lives. I’m too young to have properly experienced Bowie in that context; but perceive him more as a father figure to much of our culture, knowing also how much of an influence he was on people who are more directly and personally iconic to someone my age. It was actually via my own primary musical icon that I was pushed to discover Bowie in a more deliberate way. When Nirvana covered Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ in their Unplugged in New York set, I thought it was one of the most poignant songs I’d ever heard. Much of it was in Kurt Cobain‘s extraordinarily fragile vocals (just a few months before Cobain’s death in 1994), but the utterly absorbing storytelling and scene-setting of the lyrics were Bowie’s. Bowie himself said of Nirvana’s performance, “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.”
As that song demonstrates, Bowie is, without doubt, one of the greatest lyricists and musical storytellers there has ever been.
He was also all those other things that everyone spent most of yesterday saying he was; a pioneer and innovator, a musical, cultural and fashion icon, etc, and someone who many, many people felt a great personal connection or identification with.
Bowie is a creator who has expressed himself in so many ways over so many years that it’s difficult to think of what the ‘definitive’ Bowie is. Even the definitive ‘identity’ or alter-ego is difficult for a lot of people to decide on. Some fans still firmly associate Ziggy Stardust with the ‘definitive’ Bowie image or identity, but this is selling David Bowie incredibly short. Many call him a ‘chameleon’; however, a chameleon changes to camouflage itself in its changing environments. Bowie was more like a shape-shifter. Aside from some Queen material, there’s very little in the glam-rock era of the seventies that I have ever been able to find any sympathy with; but Bowie is somehow always the exception. Maybe that’s because he not only outlived that era, but pre-dated it too; his creations, though able to chime with the fashions and vibes of the time, also had the DNA of longevity encoded in them – as genius usually does. And that continued to be the case all through his career.
As not just a musician (and a multi-instrument musician, at that) and songwriter and performer, but an actor, painter, producer, conceptual artist, style icon and whatever else he was, it is hard to think of many – or even any – comparable pop-culture figures in terms of output, diversity and influence and over such a long period of time. Although very different performers, Michael Jackson might be the only popular performer on the same level. Even in just pure musical terms, this is an artist who started in the sixties, outdid and outlasted the glam-rock era in the seventies, survived and even thrived in the punk era (which shouldn’t have been possible), pioneering the New Romantics, thriving and growing in the eighties, and essentially continuing to evolve, excel and inspire all the way through subsequent decades. In all that time, he of course made some unforgettable music, and some forgettable music and misfires along the way, but never just playing it safe and never becoming disconnected from contemporary culture or being stuck in the past.
There are parts of Bowie’s catalogue that I don’t really listen to (there are parts I haven’t even *gotten* to yet; the man has a lot of music); but you can respect even the bits of an artist’s catalogue that don’t really do it for you when you can see the sincerity of the artistry and the intention of doing new, different things, or of trying to create something really special.
It’s a hell of a creative output when you’ve done something as toe-curlingly bad as ‘Dancing in the Street’ (with Mick Jagger), as unbelievably brilliant as Ziggy Stardust, as bafflingly sweet and endearing as dueting with Bing Crosby (on ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ in the late seventies; and which I’ve listened to an embarrassingly large number of times), and have played Nikola Tesla (2006, in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige) and Pontius Pilate for Scorsese. Apparently, he was even being sought to play a role in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. But Bowie was genuinely a Renaissance Man, making his mark on virtually every popular art-form of medium of contemporary Western culture. The impression you always have of him is that he was too big to be contained within any particular niche.
Unlike a lot of ageing ‘rock stars’, Bowie also remained true to a kind of unspoken pact of non-conformity, never entirely feeling like a part of the establishment. Unlike McCartney, Jagger, Elton and others, he refused his knighthood. And unlike most musicians with incredibly long careers, Bowie was never someone who settled on a formula or repertoire and then just spent decades milking that or playing off nostalgia; Bowie was permanently an innovator and a proper artist always seeking to break new ground, seeking continual rebirth or evolution. Never allowing himself to become merely a revered cultural edifice to be worshiped and gather dust, he was permanently looking to craft out new musical expression and avenues, experimenting and innovating every time.
As such, some of his work over the years hasn’t been as great or as impactful; but that’s the by-product of being both so prolific and of being an innovator and experimenter who is genuinely engaged in an artistic voyage of discovery, rather than a nostalgia-based money-spinner milking old successes.
That sense of the artistic and creative voyager has always defined Bowie’s work, but especially in the latter stages of his output, where he could’ve just played the nostalgia card (but never did). No one else could really boast a musical output that spanned such disparate genres as glam-rock, psychadlia, soul, funk, industrial, synth-pop, and even jungle. The newly-released Blackstar album is a perfect example; being classed loosely as ‘art-rock’, but by some as ‘avant-garde jazz’ – really, it doesn’t have a classification, other than ‘Bowie’ (a genre unto itself).
The track ‘Blackstar’ itself is a deeply absorbing piece of music that effortlessly combines and marries so many disparate elements (drum-and-bass, even Gregorian-style tone, unorthodox time-signatures) and evokes so much; it’s extraordinary that any artist of Bowie’s age and experience would still be crafting out music of this kind or of this level of potency.
But that’s a key difference between a Bowie and, say, a McCartney or Jagger; David Bowie remained so creatively potent all through his long career, even to the very last musical breath. Any other artist who’s been writing and performing as long as he had, would’ve been too tired or jaded a long time ago to be composing music on this scale.
The fact that ‘Blackstar’ only charted at number 129 on the UK Singles Chart is demonstrative of how tedious and how far off-the-mark popular music tastes and trends have become.
The Johan Renck directed video for ‘Blackstar’ is compelling, baffling and rich with esoteric imagery; not as directly life-and-death oriented as ‘Lazarus’, but still suggestive of a deep contemplation of cosmic and existential themes. It’d be easy, even cliched, for people to pour over every detail in the video in the context of Bowie’s condition and his passing; although, as with Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ video, it is difficult not to.
While it’s very difficult, instinctively, to not think of ‘Starman’ or ‘Space Oddity’ when trying to think of our ‘favorite’ Bowie songs (although actually, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, released the year I was born, might be my favorite all-time Bowie single), I think this Blackstar album is going to grow and gather substantial gravity, so that five years from now people might be talking about this final piece of work in the same breath as the Bowie ‘classics‘.
When an artist dies, it’s very easy and almost cliched to start looking for additional meaning or subtext in their most recent work; but in Bowie’s case, it seems pretty obvious that his final album, Blackstar – released just days ago – is deliberately designed to act as a great maestro’s final act. This has been confirmed by the album’s producer, who affirms that Blackstar – released days ago, on what was Bowie’s 69th birthday – was knowingly Bowie’s final, parting gift to the world and to his fans. Even most Bowie fans wouldn’t have had the chance to listen to it before the news of Bowie’s passing was announced.
A carefully-orchestrated farewell to his fans is what Blackstar is being described as.
I’ve haven’t yet had time to listen to Blackstar fully; but I saw the video for ‘Lazarus’ a few days ago and thought it was incredibly compelling, the video perfectly capturing the profound nature of the lyrics and deeply transcendent theme of the song. But it reminded me immediately of Johnny Cash‘s bittersweet cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’, which had seemed destined to particularly resonate after Cash’s death. “Look up here, I’m in heaven” is a staggering first line from an artist fully aware of his mortality and, on some level, singing to his listeners and fans, knowing that he might already be beyond this world by the time most people were first hearing it.
Lazarus was of course the character in the Gospels who is miraculously raised from the dead by Jesus; so for Bowie to invoke an image of resurrection and ‘cheating death’, particularly for his final single and video, is incredibly rich with resonance and meaning. The thing that’s so striking about the ‘Lazarus’ video is that it ultimately seems to become triumphal, like both a confrontation with, but also an embracing and conquering, of the mysteries of mortality. It feels both unsettling and ultimately beautiful; and it hints at a belief or embracing of the idea of resurrection or of life beyond life. At the very least, it seems to depict a powerful idea of liberation at the end of a long struggle.
One of the legends about the myth of the Biblical Lazarus is that he supposedly lived on forever, having been supernaturally revived from the grave.
One of the most striking things about an old film called Barabbus (starring the late Anthony Quinn) was a scene in which Quinn’s character Barrabus encounters the living Lazarus; this strange otherwordly figure who simply can’t die anymore because he has been made to conquer death. As a theme for a final single to be released within David Bowie’s lifetime, what a powerful myth to invoke.
Curiously, Iman’s tweet just hours before her partner’s death was announced, read ‘The struggle is real; but so is God’.
The idea of an artist producing a piece of work fully intended to be their final statement to the world is compelling and poignant. David Bowie, we are told, had been struggling with cancer for a year-and-a-half and must’ve been incredibly in touch with his mortality and deeply contemplating the great issues and mysteries of life, death and existence. It’s extraordinary that someone in that situation would continue to strive to work, but Bowie was a prolific artist; and it’s fitting that the man who pretty much invented the concept album would strive to create one last epic piece of work.
And that an artist whose life itself has been described as a work of art should make his own mortality a final work of art too.
It was always evident that Kurt Cobain followed a vaguely similar route with Nirvana’s brilliant final album, In Utero , in 1993, though probably in a less complete way. The In Utero album was replete with imagery, art and lyrics relating to death, birth and the life cycle; but Cobain, for all his brilliance, wasn’t anything like the completist or deliberate visionary Bowie was. And it is both poignant and wonderful that David Bowie has bowed out with a deliberate, considered piece of work that was designed to – and certainly will – resonate on a transcendent level. How perfect that music’s ultimate concept-artist would do that.
Said his friend and producer, Tony Visconti; “His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be.”
Listening to some of this new, parting and final music of Bowie’s, there is a sense of willful transcendence and of willful triumph in the midst of pain, suffering and mortality; turning a finite struggle into something beautiful or even defiant. It brings to mind one of Bowie’s most famous quotes; “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human,” he once said. “I felt very puny as a human. I thought, “F**k that. I want to be a superhuman “.
Both ‘Lazarus’ and ‘Blackstar’ hint that maybe that’s how David Bowie wanted to see his imminent mortality; as the last, and also the ultimate, chance to rise to the occasion and become “something more than human”. Even to become “superhuman”. Whether that’s true or not – and we can never know what he was thinking or feeling over the course of these last eighteen months – it’s a brilliant, perfect way to think of his final days and his final creative act: as a sort of willful apotheosis.
R.I.P, David Bowie – a true musical innovator, cultural icon and creative master.