As someone who spent his adolescence in the 1970s, David Bowie (1947-2016) was unavoidable. My brothers brought his album Hunky Dory into the house and I listened to it repeatedly. Bowie made it big in Canada well before he had a number one hit in the USA (the same happened with other performers like Genesis and Peter Gabriel), so when he did break out in 1975 with Young Americans I felt hipsterishly superior in having already known about the man. At high school we danced to Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust. I’m not sure I was ever a fan as such, but I sure liked the music. Herewith, then, a few thoughts on this icon.
- There was always something both repellent and alluring about Bowie, and it was that tension that made him so fascinating. I never wanted to be David Bowie, but I sure liked to see what he was up to. In the early ‘seventies androgyny was part of that, as was the nihilism that popped up in the lyrics of Diamond Dogs. “This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is genocide” was not your normal pop lyric.
- Bowie was a brilliant, charismatic performer brimming with confidence. Watch this video of Changes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMQ0Ryy01yE
- Bowie was a sponge. He heard the popular music of his day and then ran it through his own filters to create something new.
- Before he was a lead singer, Bowie’s instrument was the saxophone – loud and demanding all the attention. Sound familiar?
- Bowie was a collaborator. His look, his clothing, was often the result of his working with fashion designers encouraged to go beyond normal couture. In music he worked with Mick Ronson, John Lennon, Rick Wakeman, Bing Crosby, Sonic Youth, Robert Fripp, Iggy Pop, Luther Vandross, Brian Eno, Queen, Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew, Tina Turner, David Sanborn, Arcade Fire, and many others. As an actor he worked in that supremely collaborative medium of film with luminaries such as Nicolas Roeg, Jim Henson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, and SpongeBob Squarepants.
- Bowie took risks, mainly because he frequently got bored with what he was doing and went off to do something he found more interesting. This led to one of the most diverse catalogues in popular music. Perhaps his most dramatic shift was in 1974-75, when he went from post-apocalyptic Diamond Dogs to the plastic soul of Young Americans and Station to Station. Now, not every shift was successful, but it always produced one or two songs that were more interesting than ninety percent of what other musicians were doing. Here’s a weird video of Bowie on Dick Cavett in November 1974 singing 1984 and Young Americans -weird because its clear in the following interview that he’s strung out on something (probably cocaine) and he’s lost a ton of weight – but he still manages to show up and give an outstanding performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8TnXRBkYt8
- Even when at his lowest point, Bowie was doing interesting stuff. In LA in 1975, in the midst of his drug abuse, he came up with Station to Station. Only Bowie could meditate on the Stations of the Cross, mix in the return of Prospero from The Tempest, and morph that into a song about trains, cocaine, and love. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDXBeu3198c
- Bowie got clean in the late ’70s. The two things that seem to have somehow done it was a geographic relocation to West Berlin and getting custody of his son. While he’s talked about his abuse of drugs I cannot seem to find much about how he got off of them. Changing locale, changing friends, and taking on responsibility seems to have been the major part of it. Was spirituality involved? Perhaps. The words of Word on a Wing (1975) are a clear cry for help: Lord, I kneel and offer you
my word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit
among your scheme of things.
- Even at his most popular, Bowie was doing some really weird things. Let’s look at the song Let’s Dance, his biggest, most popular hit. The verses are in B flat minor – a pretty dark key. The horns are staccato and discordant. Bowie’s voice is hardly alluring – more like directives from the high school principal. It resolves from the verse into a nice stable bridge in D flat major, but only for a bit. The tension between the verses and the bridge are probably what make the song.
- Hunk Dory is my favourite album by David Bowie. There isn’t a single bad song on it. Changes. Kooks. Any Warhol. Life on Mars. Oh You Pretty Things. Ahhh.
- David Bowie is not David Jones. Iman said somewhere that she did not marry David Bowie, but David Jones. Jones never legally changed his name – unlike Elton John he never became his created character. Somehow I knew that this was all an act. His son, notably, did not remain “Zowie Bowie” but became the film director “Duncan Jones”. Towards the end of his life I suspect there was less of a distance between the man David Jones and his characters, but it was undoubtedly healthy to keep that distinction in his life.
Adieu, Mr. Jones. David Bowie lives on.