Jan 13, 2016
When silent film mega-movie star Rudolph Valentino died suddenly in 1926 at age thirty-one, the world was shocked. He was simply too big a star, an other-worldly exotic foreign leading man who bucked the industry moguls for his art. The film industry itself was so new, no screen personality had ever died. When his final film was released a few days after his death it added to the surreal intrigue, stunning the world again.
In our generation the shock of a pop figure of such magnitude as David Bowie suddenly passing away casts a sadness reserved for beloved statesmen or royalty. Such was the ubiquitous presence of David Bowie in our culture. Most of us can date our lives by Bowie’s musical output, which speaks of the length, breadth and depth of the artist. The fact he left us a farewell album filled with clues of his dying is stunning; the artist reaching to his audience posthumously.
If Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elton John or Mick Jagger were to die, it would be no greater a loss.
Yet clichés such as his being “an original; one of kind” fail to capture Bowie's achievements. If Sinatra did it his way, David Bowie showed us new ways of doing it.
No other artist designed his career, created characters and personas, borrowed and forged musical styles as did Bowie. The music industry doesn’t permit such reinvention; similar attempts by lesser artists would appear calculated, desperate, summarily rejected.
But Bowie flew higher than his critics. Pulling together the myriad influences of his youth, from London’s R&B, Anthony Newley’s musical comedy, apprenticeship with theatre mime Lindsay Kemp, Bowie grew up in public, assimilating film, literature, fashion and painting along the way.
He didn’t want to fit in with the rock world, but use it as a medium. As his 1966 music hall pop began to rock with the Man Who Sold The World and poetic Hunky Dory in '69 with Space Oddity's Major Tom character, Bowie’s focus sharpened.
His messianic suicidal Ziggy Stardust made him a global star in 1972, inspiring a flood of glam-rockers, yet Bowie departed to become Aladdin Sane, the Diamond Dog, the plastic white-soul Young American, the teutonic Thin White Duke. His songwriting rivaled the best of his era, but Bowie was not the sort of artist to cherry-pick. If you claim to merely like some of his songs, you missed him. To allow Bowie to take you into his vision was to go on a full ride in his musical world. That was the sign of a true fan. I count myself among them.
Unlike other pop-rock giants, Bowie's abstractions could fascinate the intellect as well as emotions. For all his stylistic scavenging, he never imitated, even during the “Pinups” album, cover versions of favourite ‘60s British Invasion tracks. He always sounded like Bowie, communicating a riveting authenticity, regardless of the adopted genres. The German trilogy albums Low, Heroes and Lodger, inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk, sound nothing like their sources. The synth-laden New Romantic movement spawned by these recordings saw Bowie quickly jump to the guitar-drenched “Scary Monsters” rather than basking in trends he started.
He found time to prove himself a celebrated film actor, beginning with The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976, with nineteen further roles to follow. His Broadway stage portrayal of the deformed Merrick in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man in 1980 electrified audiences, as Bowie conveyed the handicapped Merrick without makeup, relying solely on his mime skills.
More unlikely was the 1977 TV special "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas" duet with the 73 year-old Crosby, a month before his death. Bowie, then 30, arrived in furs, flaming red hair and lips, announcing he wouldn't sing "Little Drummer Boy". The producers quickly wrote the "Peace on Earth" counter-melody, Bowie removed the makeup, bonded with Bing on the new arrangement, the resulting video now standard Christmas fare.
The rock star environ was competitive, filled with large and fragile egos. Bowie helped the careers of others, notably Iggy Pop and Velvet Underground mentor Lou Reed, whose solo debut album "Transformer" with flagship single "Walk on the Wild Side" Bowie produced in 1972, amidst his own rise to stardom. When Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1993, Bowie showcased him one last time on the Black Tie White Noise sessions.
Thin, heavily-processed guitar sounds dominated the early '80s. Bowie chose to engage Stevie Ray Vaughan's thick Texas blues guitar for 1983's "Let's Dance" album, with Hugh Masekela's horn section on the title track. Giving them the solo, Bowie's instructions were, "Play whatever you want." It was Bowie's all-time commercial peak.
Ironically the success of “Let’s Dance” and Serious Moonlight tours made Bowie uncomfortable. “Now people with Phil Collins albums buy my albums.”
Even his career lulls, “Tonight” and the Glass Spider period would comprise a brilliant career for any other artist. Such were the high expectations placed on Bowie.
When a fan handed him a demo of guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Bowie abandoned his solo career entirely, forming metal band Tin Machine with Gabrels, playing modest venues.
Bowie was interesting because he was interested. He could soak in influences others missed, avoid trappings and temptations of success, the pressures of popularity. He was smarter than the rest of us, applying his genius to a medium not associated with refined intellect.
Bowie communicated directly with his fans when it became possible to connect online. The moment social networking appeared, he disappeared.
Amid rumours of stroke and ill health Bowie vanished from a world strewn with cell cameras and online gossip. How he kept secret the production of the brilliant 2013 comeback album Next Day, his battle with cancer and further production of the exquisite farewell album Blackstar is yet another testament to his media savvy. In December he told Ivo Van Hove, musical director of Bowie's new Broadway musical Lazarus that he wanted to keep going, start more projects.
Bowie owned a villa on the remote island of Mustique in the Carribean. He could’ve slipped away to spend his final days in peace there or any number of reclusive locations. Instead the consummate artist raced the clock of his own mortality to present us his final work; life as art, art as life.
How much character and dedication did this take? The accolades which now pour in cannot do the great man justice.
All who knew him and worked with him speak of his kindness and generosity. He was a man of faith, as he occasionally stated. Word on a Wing indicated as much; praying the Lord’s Prayer on bended knee to a packed stadium at the 1992 Freddy Mercury tribute evoked his destiny: “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven.” – Matthew 10:32.
We can be assured David Bowie is as successful in Heaven as he was in this world.