Spread the word. This death thing is legit. If David Bowie isn’t going to live forever, nobody is.
Apart from sorrow at his passing, I feel an immense futility in writing about David Bowie. So much has already been expressed by so many. Rather than lapse into hagiography (he would’ve hated that, anyway) I would rather highlight a few salient points about the man that I think are all too often overlooked.
1. David Bowie was a brilliant songwriter.
This should go without saying, but it does tend to get lost in the mix. Yes, Bowie was a master of stagecraft and had an instinctive knack for generating reams of publicity. Let’s pause for a moment, though, to heed his words:
“I want to make myself a vehicle, a prop for my songs.”
Mission accomplished. The best part, though, is that Bowie’s songs are truly exceptional and reward repeated listening. This is the kind of statement that can spark a pub brawl, but I’d wager that, despite the fact that he doesn’t get the same level of recognition as a composer or lyricist, Bowie was every bit as good as Lennon, McCartney, Dylan and Springsteen. “Changes.” “Golden Years.” “Modern Love.” Those are just the hits. Wait until you encounter the icy, lunatic despair of “The Bewlay Brothers” or the righteous anger of “Teenage Wildlife.”
And, if you’ll permit a small digression, I have to speak for a moment exclusively to any fellow musicians out there. If you haven’t yet analyzed Bowie’s work, you have a real treat in store. Anyone who has ever spent time hunched over an acoustic guitar trying to nail the Escher-like spiral staircase chorus from “All the Young Dudes” will know what I’m talking about. Don’t look up the chords—the eureka moment is worth working for.
If nothing else will convince, consider this: Trent Reznor realized (in the midst of an interview with David Bowie, no less) that he’d unconsciously pilfered the melody from Bowie’s “Crystal Japan” for his own composition, “A Warm Place.” Ouch.
2. David Bowie was an intellectual.
As I write this, there is a better than a slim chance that bellicose know-nothing Donald Trump may be the next American president. If that doesn’t frighten you it really should. I’m reminded of the words of Isaac Asimov:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
I’m not sure if dear Isaac had any taste for rock music, but he would’ve been able to listen to Bowie without any guilt. By all accounts a voracious reader, Bowie once described himself as “a librarian with a sex drive.” It certainly showed in his work. There are umpteen examples, but my personal favorite is “The Supermen,” where Bowie attempts to mash the complex philosophies of Nietzsche into a doom-laden heavy metal track. Trust me, it’s glorious. Once you’ve covered that, be sure to listen to the Orwell-inspired Diamond Dogs, Bowie’s first stateside top ten album.
At his best, Bowie represented a ferociously intellectual brand of rock music triggered by the likes of Dylan and the Beatles that has since virtually disappeared. In a culture that can frequently veer toward the ignorant and nihilistic, that’s something worth acknowledging, and, hopefully, encouraging.
3. Despite massive success, Bowie was never really mainstream.
This may be the most contentious point, especially for anyone who lived through David’s supernaturally successful Let’s Dance era. Sure, Bowie sold records, he knew how to play the game, but he was never really part of it, and that’s a good thing.
I won’t be tasteless and call out anyone by name, but this is a key difference between Bowie and the legions of imitators who owe a debt to him. It’s all well and good to strike a provocative pose, but if it doesn’t come from your true character, it won’t count for anything in the long run. Makeup, contact lenses and phony outrage will only carry you so far.
The fascinating thing about Bowie is, even when he tried to be “normal,” it didn’t quite work. Thankfully, there was always something a little off about the guy. He may have started out wanting to be Anthony Newley, but deep down he was Scott Walker. The resulting tension is precisely what made his work so compelling. Bowie wasn’t being weird for the sake of it; he was being weird because he couldn’t help himself. This leads me to my final point…
4. David Bowie inspired people to celebrate their many selves.
Ziggy Stardust. Halloween Jack. The Thin White Duke. In the mire of the seventies, most critics and journalists feebly assumed that Bowie’s changing personae were a cynical Me Decade calculation. “Hey, kids! With the right cigarettes, attitude and clothes, you can be a lot of different people just like Uncle David!”
It’s closer to the truth to say that Bowie was utilizing himself to demonstrate that you already are a lot of different people: chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature. Rather than being terrified or ashamed of your different selves, invite them over for tea. Play some dominoes. Get to know one another. You might as well be on good terms; the only alternative is self-destruction.
As a humble example, my first Bowie encounter took place in December 1979 when he made his inaugural appearance on Saturday Night Live. After a brief introduction by comparatively staid host Martin Sheen, the screen dissolved to reveal what my seven-year-old brain thought at first was a blond android trapped inside a laminated Christmas tree. The vaguely middle-eastern guitar motif of “The Man Who Sold the World” chimed in, and Bowie—carried by his minions Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi—seemed to float toward the microphone like a specter; the ghost of music past, present and, especially, future.
I was unnerved. The visuals were bad enough, but when he started to sing, I was petrified: “We passed upon the stair… we spoke of was and when…” Shudder. Forgive the retrospective self-analysis, but I suspect I knew on a primal level that Bowie represented an ineffable something that I recognized in myself but wasn’t even close to coming to terms with.
Some ten years later, I was a painfully introverted teenager who had spent roughly eighteen months obsessing over the admittedly limited folio of Syd Barrett (who was, if you didn’t know already, a massive influence on Bowie.) I was ready for something new. Fortunately, Bowie’s mighty catalogue was about to be reissued on CD by Rykodisc. The man had timing.
More importantly, though, I was ready to face the strange—both of the world, and, more importantly, within myself. Bowie was there to reflect strangeness back to me and demonstrate how to embrace it and use to my advantage. I won’t go as far as to say that David Bowie saved my life, but in the bad old days before Ellen, before Caitlyn, before anyone, his sheer fearlessness was inspiring. Bowie first announced his bisexuality in 1972, the year of my birth. It may just have been another role for rock music’s consummate actor, but it was a role I strongly identified with.
Let’s leave the question of life on mars to the scientists. Bowie proved you could have a life on earth.
Thanks, David, for everything.
by Kieran Walsh
Kieran Walsh is a filmmaker, guitarist, obsessive Doctor Who fan, and the author of several nonfiction children’s books on subjects ranging from math to geography to social studies. He contributes regularly to Jumped the Snark (Kieran’s Korner) and invented of most of the primary colors.