I thought it was a hoax. I really did. There’s no way it could be true. No way. Someone is playing a cruel trick on us all. Surely. Hopefully.
But it is true. David Bowie is dead. His son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, confirmed it on his Twitter account late last night as did Bowie’s longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti.
Less than two weeks ago in this space, I had just recounted the number of Bowie entries I had written in 2015. There were five. And I had noted the upcoming release of what will now be his final studio album, Blackstar. Just three days after its release, he’s gone. The reason: cancer. Fuck.
David Bowie’s sudden death at age 69 is shocking for a whole number of reasons, most notably the fact that so many of us didn’t even know he was sick. (According to an official press release by his social media accounts, his struggle with the disease lasted a year and a half.) (JANUARY 12 UPDATE: He had liver cancer and only a few people knew his diagnosis.)
It’s long forgotten now but there was a time when Bowie was a hardcore hedonist, a committed pleasure seeker who sought women, drugs & alcohol in ever copious amounts. He was so strung out on cocaine for much of the 70s, he stopped eating regular food for a time, limiting himself to green vegetables, usually lettuce. He thought aliens were out to get him. He got drunk so many times in Berlin his worldview became bleak & helpless hence the dark music he would make at the end of the decade, his increasingly dangerous addictions fuelling his thankfully temporary fascination with fascism and Nazis.
How he survived overdose after overdose and personal & professional crisis after crisis is a testament to his incredible endurance and adaptability. Besides his terrifyingly self-destructive habits, Bowie was screwed over by his then-manager Tony DeFries, a toxic business arrangement that took years to end and left him in serious financial upheaval. His first marriage, an open relationship with his former muse Angela (Duncan’s mom), ended acrimoniously the same time he wanted to divorce himself from RCA, the label that released almost all of his most famous, influential material.
The fact that Bowie even made it to middle age in spite of all this adversity, debauchery & trauma is shocking in its own right. And downright admirable. (I haven’t even mentioned Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s jailed assassin, who also contemplated murdering Bowie before ultimately targeting the former Beatle. It was the rare topic the usually accessible Bowie declined to discuss for obvious reasons.) It’s important to remember that there was a time where it looked like he wouldn’t even survive the 70s.
But survive that treacherous decade he did. Not only did he survive, he grew in stature despite releasing music that few felt was better than the classics in his first full decade, although he was never short on good songs and albums. As he gradually cleaned himself up, only one bad habit remained: cigarettes. In pictures and countless TV interviews, Bowie was often never without one between his fingers. It all caught up to him before a gig in 2004.
Bowie was in significant pain. A pinched nerve, he initially thought. Ever the trooper, he went ahead with the two-hour show. Immediately afterward, he sought medical treatment. He was stunned to learn the truth. He actually had a minor heart attack. His doctor gave him an ultimatum: give up the cigarettes or further put his health at risk. Bowie finally gave up the smokes.
As a result, he would drastically scale back his public appearances. Oh sure, there was a movie or TV role here, a special live gig there. But for the most part, he would finally enjoy prolonged periods of privacy with his second wife, the model/actress Iman, and their now teenage daughter Alexandria.
Then, three years ago, out of nowhere, a new single followed by a new album. The Next Day was Bowie’s first new studio effort in a decade. (It was released in at least three different versions on CD alone.) Recorded in secret very slowly over two years, it received glorious reviews upon its unveiling and deservedly so. By the end of 2014, another new recording, the Grammy-nominated Sue, was included in Bowie’s most expansive greatest hits collection to date, the sprawling but by no means comprehensive 3CD set, Nothing Has Changed, which highlighted 50 years of music making. A reworked version is on Blackstar.
Throughout his surprise return, Bowie had avoided engaging with the press. He left that to Tony Visconti who produced all three recordings. (However, when he won a Brit award in 2014 he did release a thank you statement while hoping Scotland would remain within the United Kingdom. Remember the failed independence referendum they had?)
Now we know why. Bowie saw his time was running out and by God, did he make the most of it. MuchMusic aired about an hour of his videos earlier today, mostly from the 70s and 80s. At the end, they aired new clips for Blackstar and Lazarus. In Blackstar, it appears the mystery of Major Tom is finally solved. His now skeletal body still in its spacesuit is discovered lying in permanent peaceful slumber. In Lazarus, Bowie spends half of the time in bed and in the last scene climbs into some cabinet before closing the door locking himself in.
Death was often a theme in Bowie’s repertoire long before he ever got that awful cancer diagnosis. Whether covering Jacques Brel’s My Death during the glammy Ziggy days, chronicling the disappearance and reappearance of Major Tom in Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes, respectively, or addressing his own mortality in Dead Man Walking, the end was never far from his mind.
Neither was sex. Consider the nude makeout scene, a tribute to From Here To Eternity, at the end of the China Girl video. (I have to admit his buttocks were spectacular.) Or Rebel Rebel. Or Drive-In Saturday. Or Time. Or Suffragette City. Or any number of songs in his vast, eclectic catalogue.
Bowie was never ashamed of his sexuality. In fact, he’s quoted on the back cover of one of his most recent biographies admitting to being cheerfully promiscuous during his first flush with fame. But when he met Iman, as he noted in an interview later on, he was already thinking of names for their children on their first date. Although they only had one, they were happily married for more than 20 years.
These days, when a celebrity comes out of the closet, the world shrugs. But when Bowie declared he was gay in 1972 (while promoting the Ziggy Stardust album), it was a proverbial earthquake. Men in rock were expected to be macho, supremely virile, barechested conquerers like Robert Plant and Iggy Pop. They were not supposed to be outrageously effeminate like Little Richard.
Bowie cleverly realized that by shocking his audience with non-traditional statements and moves like declaring he was homosexual (although he was indeed a macho, supremely virile ladykiller himself), he would stand out. (His hero, Little Richard, a black man from the segregationist South, could never get away with that.) Playing around with gender identity not only suited his image, it gave his songwriting a clear focus and identity. It effectively separated him from the pack even if John Lennon initially dismissed it as “rock and roll with lipstick”.
Ziggy Stardust, you could argue, is the first fictional trans rock star. Both Suffragette City and Lady Stardust employ female pronouns. The gender of the protagonist of Rebel Rebel is never specified. (“She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”) Other songs like John, I’m Only Dancing seem to suggest a male character is only pretending to pass for straight when he’s really bisexual (“She turns me on/But don’t get me wrong/I’m only dancing”).
The gambit worked in the free spirited UK but Bowie struggled for a similar break in the more sexually repressive America. (It took three tries to get Space Oddity into Billboard’s Top 40 over six years.) None of his glam anthems crossed over into the mainstream at the time. It wasn’t until he directly addressed the US in Young Americans with his more soulful approach that he finally achieved the recognition he had long coveted.
And it might not have been as successful as it was were it not for the last-minute inclusion of the brilliant Fame, a blistering commentary on how shady managers ruin the charmed lives of rock stars, entirely inspired by a productive, late night bitch session with Bowie’s now close friend & supporter, John Lennon, who sang back-up vocals. It hit number one.
Young Americans also benefited from the participation of Luther Vandross, then a young, hungry soul singer who Bowie hired to do arrangements and his own backing vocals.
From there, Bowie would undergo another dramatic transition to the cold detachment of Germanic electronica, first teased on the excellent Station To Station (which featured the hit Golden Years and the epic title cut with its slow build before its exceptional disco climax) then fully embraced on the laconic Low and “Heroes”. Bowie has little memory of Station To Station’s creation because he was high on cocaine the entire time. It was the last time he would make an album during punishing, successive all-night sessions.
When STS was ready to go, Bowie was riding in the back seat of his limo in Los Angeles one typically sunny afternoon when he spotted a familiar face walking down the street. It was the troubled Iggy Pop, the former Stooges frontman. (Bowie produced their third album, Raw Power. His original mix remains controversial.) He gave him a lift and eventually played him his new album. Desperate to get something going again after his band flamed out for the second time, Iggy readily agreed to Bowie’s generous offer to tour Europe with him. They ended up living in France and a then-divided Germany for a brief period.
The gesture solidified their friendship for years (although things cooled in the late 90s) and launched Iggy’s solo career. Bowie helped spearhead The Idiot and Lust For Life (he convinced his label RCA to sign Iggy hyping him as the next Alice Cooper), both released during the UK punk explosion. (He later produced Iggy’s eventual breakthrough, Blah Blah Blah, which included Real Wild Child.) He even played keyboards in Iggy’s own touring band. (They appeared on The Dinah Shore Show together, believe it or not.) Years earlier, when another friend, Lou Reed, was similarly struggling, Bowie, fresh off his Ziggy Stardust triumph, produced Transformer, the album that spawned the classic Warhol Factory tribute, Walk On The Wild Side. Bowie also penned Mott The Hoople’s biggest hit, All The Young Dudes, while also recording his own version.
After Lodger and Scary Monsters (both filled with classic hits and killer album cuts), the one-two punch of Under Pressure (with Queen) and the five-year-old Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth (with Bing Crosby), still the greatest modern Christmas song of all time, and the Baal EP, Bowie would be welcomed back to the American mainstream with Let’s Dance (which featured an unknown guitar slinger named Stevie Ray Vaughn). Its blockbuster success genuinely startled him. Combining dance music with the blues was seen as a unique hybrid. Bowie never expected it to be his biggest album. (It was nominated for the Album Of The Year Grammy.) The title song would be his second and final US number one. China Girl, originally recorded by Iggy on The Idiot, became a worldwide Top 10 giving The Jean Genie/Ziggy Stardust inspiration his first taste of financial stability. (Bowie recorded other Iggy tracks on his next two albums.)
However, unable to relate to his new expanded audience and now uncertain about where to go next (he was also probably conflicted about the restoration of his fortunes after being screwed by DeFries which also had to have contributed to his reticence), Bowie greatly scaled back the edgy experimentation that defined his 70s work and played it safe with the covers-heavy Tonight (a good but not inspired collection) and the heavily criticized Never Let Me Down.
By the end of the 80s, Bowie was determined to get back on track. The formation of Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers (who played on Lust For Life) might not have panned out quite the way he intended, but it did spring him from his cushy, unfulfilling creative prison. Never again would he feel the suffocating pressure of softening his avant garde ideas for mass appeal.
After Fame was remixed for Pretty Woman & Changesbowie (it was augmented by a nifty, visually arresting video) and Rykodisc reissued Bowie’s Polygram & RCA albums (many of which contained rare bonus tracks), Bowie resumed his solo career, first with Real Cool World (from the awful Cool World movie) and the album Black Tie White Noise which features a number of songs inspired by his second wife Iman who he had just married. Standouts on the latter include Jump They Say (about his late schizophrenic brother Terry) and the belted out cover of I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday where he out-Morrissey’s Morrissey.
For the rest of the decade, Bowie’s alt-rock cred rose substantially even though the Let’s Dance audience had moved on. Nirvana covered The Man Who Sold The World to much fanfare for MTV Unplugged. (Bowie was often annoyed that fans thought Kurt Cobain wrote it.) Nine Inch Nails joined him on tour. And the guitar work on The Smashing Pumpkins’ Zero was clearly an unsubtle homage to Boys Keep Swinging. Meanwhile, his hard rock edge returned.
Outside’s spoken word segments are skipable but not the songs, most especially The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, Strangers When We Meet, Hallo Spaceboy (the last Major Tom song) and A Small Plot Of Land (featuring the great pianist Mike Garson who played on Aladdin Sane).
The boisterous Earthling saw Bowie embracing jungle. Best known for Little Wonder and I’m Afraid Of Americans (Trent Reznor’s remix is superior to the album version), it was released the same year he turned 50. (In celebration, Bowie had a birthday concert at Madison Square Garden which featured guest musicians Dave Grohl, Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Frank Black and Billy Corgan.)
Bowie ended the 90s with the flawed but moving …hours which gave us the beautifully philosophical Thursday’s Child and the rocking, Stooges-inspired The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell. The Dreamers features one of his most soaring late period vocals while This Isn’t Happening showcases one of Reeves Gabrels best hooks. (A fan who won a songwriting contest wrote the lyrics.)
When Toy was scrapped (it later leaked online), Bowie presented Heathen instead. (Slow Burn is a seriously underappreciated single, another great vocal showcase.) Then came Reality and all its multiple versions. The stellar New Killer Star was nominated for a Grammy. Fall Dog Bombs The Moon, which was inspired by Dick Cheney of all people, is cutting social commentary about the collective indifference of rich, unaccountable sociopaths. And his hurried, Spanish-inflected version of The Modern Lovers’ Pablo Picasso challenges one’s affection for the more relaxed original.
I could go on and on and on about this man’s life and career. We haven’t even talked about his acting, how he played Andy Warhol in Basquiat, the villain in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (the soundtrack has a number of bouncy Bowie originals), the detached alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth and Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. I haven’t mentioned his championing of bands like The Ramones, The Talking Heads, The Cure, Kraftwerk (V2 Schneider from “Heroes” was a direct tribute to the leader of the German foursome), The Polyphonic Spree and The Arcade Fire (who he performed live with during a Fashion Rocks event). What about all the songs he did for other movies like Absolute Beginners, When The Wind Blows, The Buddha Of Surburbia and The Falcon & The Snowman, to name but four. Nor have I run down his very funny Late Night With Conan O’Brien appearances.
There’s just so much, too much to document in a single tribute which is fitting after all. Because there isn’t one song, one B-side, one concert, one album, one movie, one TV show or even one interview that singularly defines David Bowie. You can try but it’s incredibly difficult. There are just too many high points to choose from.
That said, let me highlight one moment of brilliance that is often overlooked. In 1999, Placebo convinced Bowie to add his vocals to a single version of Without You I’m Nothing. It’s this take that was added to their singles collection, Once More With Feeling. Listen to the original album cut. Then listen to the Bowie version. Which one is the definitive one?
Do I even have to ask?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, January 12, 2015