So David Bowie has passed at the age of 69, leaving behind a legacy matched by few. As a musician, he had no great talent for technical playing or lyrical poetry; but Bowie’s genius lay in his ability to innovate, to perform, and to make weirdness cool in an industry of the masculinity obsessed, open-shirted rock god.
Bowie moved effortlessly from persona to persona, each embodying a different musical style and story. It was this chameleon-like ability and an uncanny knack to be years ahead of his time(s) that has made the man a cultural hurricane – sweeping all along his path as he left many breathless, spent and sometimes confused in his wake.
Despite achieving massive fame Bowie has always played the role the outsider – the lone man floating in the extraterrestrial vastness, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke. During the downturn of Beatlemania at the end of the ’60s Bowie emerged as an enigma; an androgynous oddity with mismatched eyes singing about space and otherworldly beings (The Laughing Gnome notwithstanding). It was an inevitable reaction to the psychedelic, all-is-loving technicolor utopia of Sgt. Pepper and gang; taking rock music out of the pot-hazed skies and shooting it straight past the stratosphere.
Ziggy Stardust became the first of the multiple personas that would define Bowie’s music. A red-haired, androgynous rock n’ roll messenger for aliens, Stardust would become an undeniable influence to pop music for decades to come. This was also where Bowie exploded into stardom; the ambiguous sexuality, the flamboyant stage persona and an audacious backstory came together to set the basis for all subsequent theatrics in pop music.
Post-Ziggy Stardust saw a shift toward Soul and Funk sounds for Bowie, this time with an Orwellian dystopia as the backdrop. The mid-70s also saw the creation of a new persona: the Thin White Duke, a stylishly dressed, pale, skeleton of a man, hair slicked back who was “an amoral zombie”. (Trivia: Neil Gaiman’s portrayal of Lucifer is based on this incarnation of Bowie) It was during this period that, while subsisting on a diet of “peppers, milk and cocaine” , Bowie lived in state of constant paranoia and terror, constantly toeing the line of insanity as rock musicians are wont to be. Unsurprisingly, this also meant the birth of some of his most critically-acclaimed works; descending from the relatively innocent Soul and Funk of Young Americans into the much darker Station to Station.
A debilitating cocaine addiction, threats of bankruptcy and an interest in the music scene in Germany eventually led Bowie to move to West Berlin in the late 70’s. There, holed up in an apartment with sometimes collaborator and friend Iggy Pop (who was also battling his own heroin addiction) and joined by Brian Eno, Bowie would produce what would eventually be known as his “Berlin Trilogy”. Eno would contribute significantly to the sound of all three albums; heavy inclusions of ambient sounds and electronic instruments like synthesizers, leading to the conception of Heroes, widely considered Bowie’s best album.
Ironically, despite its reputation for blow the 80’s did not see large amounts of cocaine use for Bowie (that came before). This was an era marked by another genre change; Pop and New Wave, birthing the track every choreographer has considered at least once Let’s Dance. By this point, Bowie was pretty much done with the bulk of his contribution to modern culture. While still releasing music, Bowie had gone past of the peak of his cultural influence. By this time, it felt as if rather than trailblazing, Bowie had gone on to produce music that was influenced by the popular music of the times; like the Drum n’ Bass inspired Earthling or the industrial/experimental Outside.
It would be a lukewarm decade for Bowie in the 90’s, which ended up in another 10 years of inactivity leading up to 2013, seeing the release of The Next Day, with cover’s nod to 1977’s Heroes. The album was well-received, with a sound much like the rock n’ roll Bowie, yet new in its bold weirdness.
There is, of course a point to all this: the just-released Blackstar. No one thought that it would be his swansong, no one even knew that Bowie was ill.
In light of the recent news, Blackstar suddenly seems all the more poignant: not so much the futurist foray into announcing a career revival as a nod to that final bell toll. This was not the post-apocalyptic Christ parable I so readily and foolishly declared at the first listen; this was perhaps what was expected to be the closing chapter on a musical repertoire as varied as it was illustrious. It’s as if he knew he had little time left, and started work on a closing address. In no way does that discount the album’s brilliance – Blackstar feels like the culmination of Bowie’s nebulous career: an eerie, powerful goodbye informed by decades of work.
This is a man who went as he came – strangely and well ahead of everyone else.