The rock and roll gods have, sadly, once again called an icon home; a titan who defined originality, innovation, reinvention, and talent above all. David Bowie, the generation-spanning, character-inventing pioneer that inspired thousands of future stars and millions of fans to choose their own path, has died at 69 years old due that no good fuck cancer.
It’s only appropriate that the Thin White Duke gets condolences from an astronaut currently in space.
I’m sitting here wondering where the hell to start? Where do you start with David friggin’ Bowie? A man of a thousand looks, he defies easy description outside of “incredibly influential superduper rock-n-roll mega-star that will never be duplicated”. He just released his 26th studio album “Blackstar” on Friday, which was also his 69th birthday, in his SIXTH decade of making music. Not churning out hacky garbage because of contract obligations. But working on something til he gets it just the way he wants it, his vision. The way David Bowie always did it.
American subway signs make us cry a different cry.
Though I certainly heard Bowie anthems like “Young Americans” and “Fame” in the background of my early life, it was his MTV iteration—the video star—that I’d become most familiar with. His 7M+ selling “Let’s Dance” album, fueled by this new medium and the hot channel that pushed it, spawned the huge hits “Modern Love”, “China Girl”, and “Let’s Dance” as it turned the erstwhile Ziggy Stardust into a sensible suit-wearing video star for a new generation. Much of that generation became fans for life and took a deep dive into Bowie’s huge and diverse catalog to discover there was so very much more to the man than the slick ’80s rock vids you watched after school.
Born David Jones on January 8, 1947, the singer changed it in the mid-’60s in part to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of the faux band The Monkees. He released a handful of singles before charting with a song that would become part of the soundtrack to many a magic mushroom adventure, “Space Oddity” (or that might have just been every song in 1969). But it was his gender line-straddling alter ego Ziggy Stardust that really moved the needle in 1972 and when Bowie began to put his own indelible stamp on rock-and-roll history. A litany of hits spilled out, no two songs sounding the same. Changes. The Jean Genie. Rebel Rebel. John, I’m Only Dancing. Life On Mars?. Suffragette City. Heroes. And that doesn’t even touch his many deep cuts that utilize various musical genres. Then, of course, there was arguably his greatest collaboration…
(Hey, I just mean don’t sleep on my man Bing Crosby.)
It was a fledgling, quirky channel in the early ’80s though where Bowie was able to present his new business-casual persona and reach out to an entire new generation that would soon fall in love with “Modern Love” the way a previous group swooned over “Starman” a decade earlier. But the artist had a much bigger impact than just making stylish videos and bad-ass songs.
Bowie’s ‘do your own thing’ life mantra coupled with his laissez-faire approach to sexuality empowered an untold number of people to embrace their individuality, recognize who they were (or thought they were at that moment), and, most importantly, to not give a shit about what anyone thought. Wanna wear make-up? Knock yourself out. How about a dress? Here you go. Feel like going down on somebody you hadn’t before? Have at it.
He was all about free artistic expression and whatever that might entail, like he was sent from the future to lead the way. His use and mash-up of genres showed his musical versatility and willingness to experiment with new sounds. To fans who were struggling with their own sexuality or couldn’t pull quite pull it together creatively, Bowie provided a comfort level not found with many of his peers. He took androgyny to a new level within the world of rock music and he backed up the act with timeless, inimitable work. “You like the music”, he seemed to be saying, “so who gives a shit how I’m dressed”.
He had an social impact beyond the music but Bowie also did some acting over years. In addition to famously playing himself in “Zoolander”, he played roles as varied as Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol, and Nikola Tesla while also doing work for Muppet master Jim Henson in “Labyrinth”. He worked with Luther Vandross before Vandross went on to his own superstardom (Vandross was a back-up singer on “Young Americans” among others). Legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan played on the “Let’s Dance” album.
There’s perhaps no better version of Bowie today than Lady Gaga. She’s insanely talented. She loves doing the Terry Griffith thing. She’s constantly looking for her next thing, her next hook. And she’ll find it. Just like David Bowie always found it.
I was fortunate to see him back in 1990 when sold out that dump, Sullivan Stadium. 60,000 fans there to see one guy. And he was electric, every bit as good as you could hope while playing a killer set.
Maintaining a successful solo rock career since the 1960s is a feat in and of itself. To do it while constantly reinventing yourself and your music yet never losing relevancy is damn near impossible. But doing the above while simultaneously encouraging personal self-fulfillment and creative expression through his art is territory only one person walks on.
There’ll never be another nor do we want one. For there can only be one David Bowie.