David Bowie released his final studio album, Blackstar, last Friday, on his 69th birthday. I bought the vinyl version on Amazon, and while it hasn’t been delivered to my house yet, I was able to download all the tracks immediately. It’s a bold, beautiful, very Bowie-esque work of art. I spent most of Friday and the weekend listening to it. I even posted a photo to Instagram on Saturday afternoon of my son and I listening to the album in the car while running errands. And as is usually the case when a favorite artist releases a new album, I decided to rediscover the catalog and subsequently transferred about 25 complete Bowie albums from my hard drive to my iPod.
Little did I know how much I would appreciate that move when I woke up this morning. Checking up on social media just before getting in the shower, I saw a headline that I honestly thought was some sort of “album release publicity stunt.” I mean, Bowie’s certainly done weirder stuff than that. But no. It really happened.
I honestly don’t remember when I first heard David Bowie. When I was living with my family outside Paris from 1974 to 1979 (from the ages of five to ten), there was a lot of rock music played on our living room stereo, but since we didn’t listen to the radio, my musical experiences didn’t really extend beyond whatever records my three older siblings were buying (or borrowing). Bowie never seemed to make it to our turntable, so it was probably around 1979, when we returned to the States and listened to the radio, that I first experienced Bowie’s magic. “Under Pressure,” his perfect, shimmering collaboration with Queen, was inescapable in 1981 when it was first released, and as a die-hard Queen fan, it piqued my interest (but in all honesty, it took YEARS for that song to click with me – I have no idea why, since I adore the song nowadays).
When MTV came around, it seemed like the perfect platform for an image-conscious chameleon like Bowie. Say what you will about MTV’s toxicity (and current irrelevance): in its early days, when so few artists were making music videos, MTV played anything and everything (expect black music – more on that later), giving exposure to a lot of artists who wouldn’t otherwise get that kind of love from a television network. Bowie, of course, didn’t need the exposure; he was already a household name. But since he’d already been making videos for years, he slid right into the music television playlist like it was tailor-made for him. Videos for “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” (a personal favorite of mine) were all over MTV and they were only too happy to have him. He went on to use this platform as an opportunity to take MTV to task for not featuring enough artists of color.
Bowie was a restless experimenter, and by the time the music video revolution hit, he’d already been – among other things – Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and the author of the highly-regarded Berlin Trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger). But for his first album of the MTV era, he decided to make a commercial pop record, Let’s Dance. It’s easy to sneer at the thought of someone so prolific and deep as Bowie making this kind of move, but like everything he’s done, it’s framed by reinvention. A refusal to stand still and do what’s expected. And while it may not break much artistic ground and is in fact a “pop” record, Let’s Dance is a damn good pop record. It refuses to apologize for this. It’s loose, fun and catchy. Bowie rode the wave and followed up Let’s Dance with what are generally perceived to be his two worst albums (Tonight and Never Let Me Down), but it’s a testament to his talent that these missteps did little to nothing to tarnish his reputation. The guy could make an album consisting of recorded bodily functions and it would simply be filed away as his “Bodily Function Era.” Just another stage.
Can I just add at this point that I bought Tonight (on cassette!) when it first came out? I really liked the song “Blue Jean” and was under the impression that the rest of the album would be pretty great. In my defense, I did get a lot of guilt-free enjoyment out of that album, even though it has really aged horribly.
One of the keys to Bowie’s universal appeal is probably his versatility and his ability to do something bold and experimental and put it on the same album as something catchy and commercial. Low was full of moody instrumental synthesizer pieces, but also contained the infectious “Sound and Vision.” Station to Station was a cocaine-fueled nightmare of excess (Bowie did so much coke during the making of that album that he honestly doesn’t remember anything about the recording experience) and the title track is an inexplicable ten-minute surrealistic artistic statement, but it’s followed by the irresistible funky single, “Golden Years” (a song he wrote for Elvis Presley to sing – unfortunately, the King declined).
Think for a minute about Bowie’s catalog, and how it makes for so many infectious, groundbreaking singles: “Space Oddity.” “Ziggy Stardust.” “Life on Mars.” “Changes.” “Suffragette City.” “Young Americans.” “Rebel Rebel.” “TVC15.” “Modern Love.” “Blue Jean.” ONE GUY wrote all those songs, and so many others.
Bowie invented space-folk. He created fictional personas and built concept albums around them. If he didn’t actually invent glam rock, he certainly brought it to the masses. He wrote, produced, and performed a whole bunch of great music with Iggy Pop. He wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople. He co-produced one of Lou Reed’s most acclaimed albums. He was a fashion icon. He made a covers album. He made an R&B album (dubbing it “plastic soul”) that featured unknown singer named Luther Vandross on backing vocals. He worked with both Trent Reznor and Brian Eno. He married a supermodel. He made an album that sold seven million copies and introduced the world to Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was Madonna’s first concert. He acted in films that were directed by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Nicolas Roeg to Christopher Nolan to Jim Henson. He recorded a Morrissey song. He co-wrote a song with John Lennon and recorded a duet with Mick Jagger.
Even if you don’t like Bowie’s music (and I honestly don’t understand how that’s humanly possible, but whatever), I think we all have a responsibility to be inspired by the man’s drive, individualism, and creativity. We will probably never see the likes of him again, but he certainly left us with a lot to ponder and enjoy.
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky.
He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky.
He’s told us not to blow it, ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”