He had the look of a rock god and the poetry to back it all up.
When I heard the tragic news of David Bowie’s death—yesterday, of liver cancer, in his New York home, aged 69—my brain was instantly flooded with a collage of his lyrics, all beautiful in their own, weird way:
“Tell me who you are, if you nail me to my car.”—“Joe the Lion”
“I’m feeling tragic like I’m Marlon Brando, when I look at my China girl.”—“China Girl”
“Lets him loose, hard to swallow.”—“Fame”
“You’re such a wonderful person but you got problems … I’ll never touch you.”—“Breaking Glass”
“Let the children lose it. Let the children use it. Let all the children boogie.”—“Starman”
Only someone with the ability to defy looks, genres, and, at times, even gender could produce work so out there and so fantastic. David Bowie wasn’t just a mere mortal. He was a slinky, mantis-like being who went from glam god, to rock’s Greta Garbo, to pop star, to elder eclectic musical statesmen, all seemingly in the blink of an eye.
The former David Robert Jones never set out to be mainstream. He would skirt it, dance with it, flirt with it, tease it, and make love to it, all while never giving in to stagnation. When the public would gravitate to one of his many come hither personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke), he would shed the skin as quickly as he donned it. When audiences grooved to a particular sound he produced (“Young Americans,” “Rebel Rebel”), he would disappear into darkness and unleash sounds that slashed convention (The Berlin Trilogy of Low, ‘Heroes’, and Lodger). There’s a reason his first big single was called “Space Oddity”—Bowie had no qualms about embracing and embodying the alien role, one that would ultimately be worshipped by millions. These included music matinee idols (Madonna, Lady Gaga) and acclaimed noisemakers.
Bowie’s vast catalogue of material is easily broken up into eras, so he always released something for everybody. If you didn’t like the red-haired, vibrato-riddled, eye-patch wearing androgynous Bowie of Diamond Dogs, you could fall for “Thomas Jerome Newton,” the literal man who fell to Earth, and who adorned the covers and filled the tracks of Station to Station and Low. You could sway with the blonde Bowie during his wildly successful Let’s Dance period or get caught up in the brooding longhair who waxed poetic on ‘Hours…’ and The Next Day.
Growing more reclusive in the 21st century, it was still gratifying to know that Bowie was making music, albeit on the sly. Just days earlier, on his 69th birthday, he released Blackstar, a work devised while spending the last 18 months battling cancer. For a man who spent years having his every look, style and movement followed, all he wanted now was to fade into legend and still keep listeners guessing about when he would return. He succeeded.
Embodying both chameleon and phoenix, Bowie’s combination of style, color, flash and sophistication will be imitated daily but never duplicated. At the same time, his beauty is destined to come alive again through the ages for future generations of music lovers. At least it will anytime the phrase “Ziggy played guitar!” blasts from the airwaves.
Celebrate David Bowie’s work with the video for “Lazarus,” courtesy of ZUUS, below: