Not even a week ago, I was writing these lines to wrap up my review of David Bowie‘s new album, Blackstar: “This is why the world still needs David Bowie—for the unexpected, and the thrill of discovery. Who knows what he might do next? If nothing else, Blackstar is a lesson to us all that we never need stop growing, exploring, lurching in new and challenging directions, as long as we draw breath.” David Bowie did that, until the very end. And now, just two days after releasing his new album, he is gone. The world is a different place without David Bowie.
Being a part of the MTV generation, my introduction to David Bowie was through “Let’s Dance”, his chart-topper written during the Cold War about the power of the human spirit and love in the face of possible obliteration… “for fear that grace should fall / for fear tonight is all.” I didn’t read much into it then, of course— I was 10, and it was a catchy pop song. So was “China Girl”, and “Modern Love”, his two other major hits from 1983. MTV had connected him with a new generation who, like me, slowly discovered that David Bowie had already built one of the most influential catalogs of music in pop/rock history. Once my uncle gave me vinyl copies of Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups and Young Americans, that was all she wrote. I slowly devoured his entire catalog, and have been doing so for three decades.
For most fans, Bowie’s career really begins with “Space Oddity” in 1969. The celestial folk song about an astronaut lost in space became a smash hit, propelling his momentum. He followed with a long string of classic albums, restlessly veering from one style to the next, unable to stay in the same path for too long. He plugged in with Mick Ronson’s electrifying guitar work on The Man Who Sold the World, then he honed his songcraft on the more mature, piano and acoustic guitar-based Hunky Dory. The classic songs were starting to pile up… “Changes”, “Life on Mars?”, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” Then came Ziggy Stardust, and Bowie became a glam-rock sensation. And on and on it went. Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, “Heroes”, Lodger, Scary Monsters. All those classic albums, all that stylistic territory covered, already an icon and he was only 33.
Artists too numerous to count have been influenced by David Bowie’s music, style, and various personas. This was especially prevalent in the ‘80s, with visuals and image suddenly so vitally important, and the new wave music strongly echoing some of Bowie’s landmark albums. Bowie himself wasn’t quite sure what path to take in the ‘80s, but he found himself again in the ‘90s and beyond. More classic albums came: Black Tie, White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Hours…, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day and Blackstar.
Bowie had a heart scare while on tour to support his 2013 album Reality. He shuttered the tour early, and largely disappeared from the public eye. With the years passing, many fans assumed the worst. Clearly, Bowie was ill, and in all likelihood his music career was over. Then with no warning, on his 66th birthday—8 January 2013—he released his first new single in a decade, “Where Are We Now?”, and announced the forthcoming new album The Next Day “Where Are We Now?” found an aging man wandering through the ghosts of his pasts, but not giving in—“As long as there’s fire. As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you.” Hold on until the very last breath. It’s the same theme that lies under the horns and electronic beats of “Let’s Dance”, and it’s a current that has passed through all of his work. Don’t be afraid to try, experiment, sometimes fail, sometimes spectacularly succeed. The Next Day seemed a rebirth, a strong album of terrific but often harrowingly dark rock and roll. He released several striking videos, but did no interviews, nor any live shows. But all of his collaborators, especially producer Tony Visconti, who’d been working with Bowie since the late ‘60s, attested to his excellent health. We were all wrong, those year when he was silent. He was just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to astonish us all again. And of course, he did.
Reports are that David Bowie died after an 18-month long battle with cancer. That would put his diagnosis at around July 2014, as he was readying a new career-long retrospective Nothing Has Changed, a set that spans his entire remarkable career. Nobody went public with the news, and Bowie remained silent. Instead he poured himself into one final album, and it’s evident not only from the music but from the hauntingly powerful videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” that he put all of himself into this project. Visconti and others again proclaimed Bowie in top condition, capable of singing at full throttle for long recording sessions. Critics and writers, including yours truly, widely proclaimed Blackstar a masterpiece. It was released on his 69th birthday. And two days later, he is gone.
The video for “Lazarus”—released on Thursday, 7 January 2016, three days before his death—shows a wan, thin, aging man writhing on a hospital bed. Surely another character, right? Surely more powerful acting, like we’ve seen so many times before. At the very end, Bowie totters backwards into a large wardrobe, closing the door behind him as he enters the darkness and the song fades to black. What does it mean now that we all know the truth? Bowie was never one to shy away from reality. He didn’t express himself through interviews, but he didn’t need to. It’s all writ large to see in his music, and the powerful visuals that accompany it. Sound and vision.
“There’s a Starman waiting in the sky / he’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” He already has. His musical legacy is peerless, and eternal. Goodbye, David Bowie. You touched millions and made the world a better place for being in it. You will never be forgotten.
// Notes from the Road
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