David Bowie died. On January 10, 2016.
The news stunned millions of earthlings, who had just been entrusted his latest work, Blackstar (★). Fans were barely discovering the complex and sublime pieces of this new album, released on January 8th, on the occasion of the artist’s 69th birthday. Critics were unanimously praising the persistent creative genius of the British singer, who was once again exploring musical territories where mainstream artists do not usually venture. Many were still trying to figure out the meaning of his new songs, reflections on the chaos of the contemporary world or on the tortures of the human soul, maybe both, maybe more… Bowie, it seems, had acquired this rare privilege of being able to create works of art whose meaning does not necessarily need to be fully understood for their value and significance to be perceived and appreciated.
A new video had just been unveiled, in which Bowie appeared lying down in bed and floating over it in a dark, cold room, before making some weird dance moves, writing down a few words on paper and then slowly walking backwards into a wooden cabinet and closing its door, as if quietly slipping away from the world of the living. A “chilling” and “frightening” video, one would think, without really understanding what the singer meant when claiming that he would now be free, “just like that bluebird”.
“Lazarus”, the song’s title, was also that of a new musical co-written by Bowie, whose performances began in December in New York. The artist, it seemed, appeared to be ageing and increasingly frail, but he was still active and creative. Alive.
Three days later, these last words and images of David Bowie would take a whole new meaning and dimension. Here was in fact a man who knew he was condemned and who was staging his own death, turning it into a work of art. An unprecedented feat in modern cultural history, the last and implausible performance by an artist who over a half century never ceased to explore the fringes of contemporary culture in order to stretch the boundaries of popular music.
The secret had been kept on Bowie’s disease, with only his family and closed ones being in the know. The singer was living away from the public eye in New York, giving no interview or concert for over ten years. The shock and emotion were thus huge when his passing was announced. The tributes were unanimous, transcending borders, generations, cultures and opinions, reflecting not only the quasi-universal respect the artist commanded, but also the profound impact the man and his work have had on the conscious and the unconscious mind of the contemporary world.
More than any other pop or rock singer before or after him, David Bowie has crossed and transcended musical styles and genres and incorporated them into a body of work that is both profoundly original and widely accessible. More than any other before or after him, he has been able to incorporate various artistic forms and expressions in his work, bringing it far beyond the perceived boundaries of rock’n’roll or even popular music. More than any other before or after him, he has been continuously able to capture the essence of the times and to distillate it into artistic representations that were both innovative and prescient. More than any other before or after him, he has been capable of constantly renewing his art, continually exploring and discovering new ways and means of musical and artistic expression, drawing on cultural vanguards or margins while making their substance accessible to a wide audience.
The exceptional creative talent of David Bowie made his work a structuring element of contemporary culture, especially in the 1970s, those crucial years that his music, more than any other, helped define. By inventing or preceding some of the main musical trends of that decade, Bowie produced its dazzling soundtrack, innovating constantly, inventing and retiring flamboyant or sombre characters and incarnations at a frantic pace, creating ever renewed sonic and visual universes. His production then became less intense in the following decades, probably less brilliant as well, but it kept on reflecting an exceptional creativity that time did not seem to alter – unlike most other artists of his generation and even the following. In the end, his musical legacy is incredibly rich and diverse, far more so than that of any other rock artist, and his body of work is probably one of the few in pop/rock music that is destined for posterity – the real posterity, that which is measured in centuries.
David Bowie’s musical production had long secured his place in the pantheon of rock’n’roll. But his mark on contemporary culture, and the void he leaves us with, also results from other aspects of his work and personality. His unmistakable voice, his strange look, his unique handsomeness, full of grace and elegance, his exceptional charisma, his charm and consummate communication skills. His insatiable curiosity, his obvious intelligence and the extent of his literary and artistic culture, which made him a unique figure in the rock music arena. His mastery of musical language and arrangements, which allowed him to produce irresistible hits as well perilous sonic experiments. The quality and originality of his texts, often obscure but always deeply evocative and never univocal, addressing all but talking to everyone. The influence he has had on generations of musicians of all types, none of which has ever been able to surpass the master. The liberating and empowering effect that his music and his characters have had on millions of human beings, in the 1970s and even later.
But what truly makes David Bowie unique is probably that he had managed that most unlikely feat of becoming a profoundly universal artist while being and remaining a resolutely elitist mind. Here was a man who never ceased to explore the strangest and most innovative corners and byways of contemporary art and culture – those paths that are usually taken only by a few adventurous spirits who often end up getting lost – while also being a huge pop star capable of transcribing the essence of his explorations into pieces of music that could impact and move everyone. A man capable of digging in the chaos of the world or the disorders of the mind to find the material needed to produce some of the most universal artwork, always staged in an original and innovative way by a brilliant conceptual mind, and delivered by a charismatic actor capable of crossing the boundaries of musical and artistic genres to transcend the superficiality of the pop/rock format. All this without ever being frivolous, and even less of a prescriber, preacher or moraliser.
David Bowie, the universal elitist, has shown that popular music is not condemned to remain a “minor” form of art. As he leaves this world and joins the stars that were so often mentioned in his songs, however, one cannot help but wonder whether he was not actually a single and lonely star, condemned to remain alone at the firmament of our contemporary musical landscape. The product of a unique and special moment in human history as much as an actor who helped shape and magnify it.
To cope with the loss of someone we didn’t personally know, we may be tempted to tell ourselves that “no one is irreplaceable”. That could be reassuring, but it is probably wrong. At least when it comes to David Bowie.
An alternative best of – Fifteen little-known David Bowie gems
A selection of some little known but remarkable music by David Bowie, beyond the hits and the classics:
- Conversation Piece (1969)
An intimate and introspective ballad about the alienation and the inability to communicate of a brilliant and isolated mind – isolated because brilliant.
I’m invisible and dumb and no one will recall me
And I can’t see the water through the tears in my eyes
- The Bewlay Brothers (1971)
On the Hunky Dory album, Bowie’s first masterpiece. One of his most impenetrable songs, thought to be an evocation of his half-brother Terry, who suffered from schizophrenia.
And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
- Velvet Goldmine (1971)
A song recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions but not retained on the legendary album. Perhaps too provocative and salacious, even for an alien rock star.
Velvet Goldmine, you stroke me like the rain
Snake it, take it, Panther Princess, you must stay
Velvet Goldmine, naked on your chain
I’ll be your King Volcano right for you again and again
My Velvet Goldmine
- Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise) (1974)
A monumental suite in three pieces on the Diamond Dogs album. Almost nine minutes of vocal and sonic variations on the theme of urban chaos and decay. Sublime.
I’m glad that you’re older than me
Makes me feel important and free
Does that make you smile, isn’t that me?
- It’s Gonna Be Me (1975)
Recorded during the Young Americans sessions and not retained on the album, yet arguably superior to most of the tracks selected in the end. A sublime and epic soul ballad on the torments of a man regretting his actions and realising that he has missed his chance. Never has a white man sung soul music so convincingly.
Hey Jack, I better shake it off, put her out of my head
Thinking I balled just another young girl last night
Oh brother, I left a woman in that morning bed
Been on that trip so many times
Good God, was it really yesterday?
- A New Career In A New Town (1977)
A beautiful instrumental with harmonica that concludes the A side of the Low album, the first instalment of the famous “Berlin trilogy” (Low, Heroes, Lodger). Evokes the arrival of Bowie in Berlin, the city of his personal redemption and artistic renewal. Precedes the much less cheerful instrumentals on the album’s B side.
- Sense of Doubt (1977)
An instrumental on the B side of the Heroes album. Ultra minimalist: a few piano notes repeated in a loop, only interrupted by a few synthetic breaths or waves. Dark and chilling, but fascinating.
- Fantastic Voyage (1978)
The first track of the Lodger album, which concludes the “Berlin trilogy”. An introspective but rather light-hearted ballad of a man who accepts his own humanity and limitations, as if returning to earth after a fantastic voyage to the stars… and/or in the meanders of depression.
In the event that this fantastic voyage
Should turn to erosion
and we never get old
Remember it’s true, dignity is valuable
But our lives are valuable too
- Looking For Lester (1993)
An amazing jazzy piece on the album Black Tie White Noise, Bowie’s first solo album after the Tin Machine interlude and the commercial period of the 1980s. Recorded with famous jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. The other Bowie, David, plays the saxophone. Groovy and energetic.
- Untitled No.1 (1993)
On the Buddha of Suburbia album, a range of appeased melodic harmonies, and some lyrics with no apparent meaning.
It’s clear that some things never take
- Strangers When We Meet (1995)
On the Outside album, which marked the reunion with Brian Eno. A superb pop song, a little out of step with the rest of the album, which is rather dark and tormented. The evocation of the distance stepping in within a couple, and resisted at first but then accepted. Very moving.
All your regrets
Ride roughshod over me
I’m so glad
That we’re strangers when we meet
- Slip Away (2002)
On the Heathen album, which is probably one of the finest musical evocations of the tragedy of 11 September 2001, even if it makes no explicit reference to it. The song is about Uncle Floyd, the character of an American show for children, which slowly fades away from memories as does America’s innocence.
Sailing over Coney island
Twinkle, twinkle uncle Floyd
We were dumb but you were fun, boy
How I wonder where you are?
- Heathen (The Rays) (2002)
The final track of the Heathen album. A meditation on the passage of time and the mortality of everything. The song was written and composed before the attacks of September 11, 2001, but almost seems to reflect the mourning of New York City in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
- Bring Me The Disco King (2003)
The final track – and probably the only essential one – of the Reality album. A great and powerful song about the slow shift of the artist towards immortality, with the excellent Mike Garson on the piano. It could have been Bowie’s last song, had he not made an unexpected and successful come back in 2013 after 10 years of silence.
Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door
Close me in the dark, let me disappear
Soon there’ll be nothing left of me
Nothing left to release
- God Bless The Girl (2013)
A bonus track on the Japanese version of The Next Day, the come back album of 2013. The song appears more light-hearted that most of the album’s songs, but in fact reflects the celebration of a man contemplating his decline and impending end.
And I don’t wanna hurt you, just wanna have some fun
God Bless the Girl
More information about these songs and many more is available at the blog “Pushing Ahead of the Dame”, one of the richest sources of information on the work of David Bowie. https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/