A rule-breaking rock star. Brixton’s native boy. The glam girl of Ziggy Stardust. The Thin White Duke. Fame-craver and shy Davey Jones. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Space drifter. Major Tom. Prince of Spiders. Cocaine cowboy of a-lad-insane. Blue Jean. The Goblin King. An old-fashioned gentleman. An art connoisseur. Actor. (As he credits himself on the record Hunky Dory.) The first white performer to play the show Soul Train. A conceptual chameleon who had a gift for fusing and adapting a multitude of musical styles and fashion (kabuki, Andy Warhol) — the latter a way to perhaps ease stage fright. Ultimately, David Bowie was a true thinking artist. He grew up on Fats Domino and Little Richard, musicals, admired Lou Reed, Iggy Pop & The Stooges, musician Vince Taylor, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, Brian Eno, writers William Burroughs, Mishima, and Nabokov and later grew to champion or promote other artists as varied as Luther Vandross, Trent Reznor, Bing Crosby, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, actresses Tilda Swinton, Marion Cotillard, Moby and Arcade Fire.
His latest record, the beautiful noir underworld Blackstar, in a way, is Bowie moving away from rock and roll and going back to the source of jazz he loved with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry — who was committed and later died by suicide. Amid all the tributes following the death of the great extraterrestrial artist, it’s good to remember that Bowie always pushed the boundaries, was culturally and sexually all-inclusive and endlessly curious about the world around him musically speaking or otherwise. He expressed himself as a kind of spiritual gnostic, whose later records showed interest in a kind of dark undercurrent: disintegration, irreality and cultural homogenization. It’s also important to remember that despite the glory and genius of Low, Station to Station, Scary Monsters and Heroes (the albums moving away from his wannabe Bob Dylan days) — the artist’s best wasn’t all in the past. And perhaps longevity is the most remarkable thing about his career.
His underappreciated 1995 concept record, the dystopian Outside, is an too-oft-forgotten gem featuring great songs like “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes”, “We Prick You”, “I’m Deranged” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”. Even what hardcore fans might call middling-Bowie like Earthling (1997) contained a great track like “Little Wonder” with its Prodigy-like roughness and “I’m Afraid of Americans” (Coincidentally, a song originally meant for Outside). The album also was going to include the fantastic “Bring Me the Disco King”, but was later released on his 2003 album Reality. The Tony Visconti-produced Heathen (2002) still featured the gorgeous “Slow Burn”, the sweeping, pathos-heavy and orchestral “Slip Away” and the moving “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”. Let’s face it, the only reason 1997-2003 is considered moderate is because what proceeded it was so exceptional.
His 2013 record The Next Day should be considered as one of his best LPs in the stronger half of his massive catalogue. It’s baffling, brilliant, both nostalgic and modern. Look no further than his minimalist album cover art, which makes use of the “Heroes” cover from 1977, but scratches out the title, adding a big white block over the face of Bowie. It’s a supplanting of the past. What better way to show, visually, how one is always connected to the past, but also removed? I like that one of the record’s biggest highlights is the balladeer-Bowie beauty, “Where Are We Now?”, a contemplative walk through Bowie’s years in Berlin. He walks us through the imagery in his head, to Potzdamer Platz, the public square in Berlin; The Dschungel, a 1970s West Berlin nightclub; KaDeWe, a Berlin department store; Bösebrücke bridge crossing East and West Germany; and Nurnberger strasse. Bowie saves one of his best lines for that track, equating his walk down memory lane into the metaphor “walking the dead”.
Ultimately, that’s what we’re left with now, a walk with his music, which is a transcendent kind of thing that lives beyond ashes and takes root in that place where all great songs reside — the heart, the mind and the stars. As Bowie himself once said, “If you come from art, you’ll always be art.” — David D. Robbins Jr. (My first impression after hearing of Bowie’s death. Article may be updated slightly later.)