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David Bowie : Icon, Innovator and Artist for All-Time

BY SEAN KENNEDY

(This post is guest written by Sean Kennedy. In keeping with my personal policy of turning to experts in the field when I am less informed than I should be on a certain topic, today we turn to Sean to share his thoughts on rock legend David Bowie. Sean is the person I always turn to first whenever any question on the topic of music comes my way. The only thing larger than Sean's encyclopedic knowledge of music, is his passion for it. Sean has been to more live music shows than all of the other people I know combined. Sean is currently a successful writer but in his previous incarnation was also a musician, songwriter and quite accomplished vocalist in his own right. Sean's opinions and insights into music in general, and rock music in particular, are held by me in the highest regard and I offer them here for you to ponder. DISCLAIMER:  Sean's opinions are his own and may or may not be shared by me, Michael McCaffrey, but I am very proud to share them with you.)

On January 9, 2016 — the day after David Bowie’s 69th birthday — my friend, Michael McCaffrey, emailed me two simple questions: What are your thoughts on David Bowie? Are you a fan?

In retrospect, the timing of his inquiry was quite odd. Bowie would die the very next day, January 10, after an 18-month struggle with cancer (it was liver cancer that ultimately took the famed musician’s life).

The public was unaware that the star had been ill, much less that he was nearing death.

My first thought upon considering my friend’s question was, Which David Bowie? There was more than one. After all, Bowie made a career of changing personas, and sounds. There was, of course, Ziggy Stardust, as well as Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke and other characters as well. It’s hardly a surprise given Bowie’s interest in theater and acting.

Bowie’s music veered from Dylan-esque singer/songwriter, to hippie psychedelia, to prototypical hard rock/metal, to glam rock, to plastic soul (as he called it), to electronica, to dance music, to industrial, and on and on. In fact, it’s fair to say that Bowie was rock’s first alternative rock star; the innovator and purveyor of the “alternative rock" genre. 

As a consequence, Bowie is like ten artists wrapped into one. Which David Bowie are you referring to, I wondered? 

My initial reply was, “He’s one of my favorite artists. I hold him in the highest regard. I have a bunch of his albums. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve appreciated him.”

Then, upon further reflection, I wrote a follow-up: 

“Bowie is the original rock 'n' roll chameleon, continually changing his sound, style and even image through the decades. He never followed trends — he set them. 

"When he had great success with a sound, or album, he’d change it for the next release. It must have driven his record company mad.”

Then, on Monday morning, January 11th, I awoke to a couple of texts from friends informing me that the great David Bowie was dead. It did not compute. He had just released his 27th studio album, and turned 69, the previous Friday — just three days prior. Had there been an accident? Another heart attack (Bowie suffered one onstage in 2004)?  

Bowie kept his illness hidden from all the world, aside from his family and closest confidants. 

The stunning news compelled me to write another reply to my friend, Michael: 

“Your sudden interest could not be more fitting, or well-timed. As I’ve said to you before, the word “genius” is thrown around far too loosely — often to describe people and things that really aren’t genius. Bowie was indeed a genius. He was a true original; a pioneer; a trend setter; an icon; and an inspiration to countless other musicians and artists. 

"I am stunned and saddened to know he is gone. I will miss him. But, as always, the music will live on. 

"HIs goal was to release Black Star on his birthday, and to make it to the finish line. That day was January 8, and two days later he was dead

"Oddly, I was just listening to Hunky Dory and Low last night, perhaps at the time of his death. Weird.  

"His shit is deep, varied and heavy. It is for people with complex minds and complex interests. It is not always easily accessible. It is art. You can appreciate it. You are an artist. 

“Seek, and discover his genius.”

Truth be told, Bowie’s catalogue is so immense, and diverse, that I am still in the process of seeking and discovering it myself. I am an old fan and a new fan, all at once.  

Bowie’s music foretold and influenced punk rock and new wave. He inserted all forms of artistry into Rock ’n’ Roll. By constantly changing both his physical and musical identity, in an almost schizophrenic fashion, Bowie compelled the genre to continue evolving and seeking new identities along with him.  

This is, after all, the man who wore a dress on the cover of his third album, The Man Who Sold the World, in 1970. Popular music had never seen anything like it. He bucked all the norms of the time. Men simply didn’t do such things. To top it off, he had long, flowing, blonde hair and looked positively feminine. This was the advent of Bowie’s gender-bending period, which continued through the early- and mid-seventies. 

He was a man willing to challenge any and all conventions, as so many great artists throughout history have been. 

David Bowie may be the most interesting character in rock history. I find him to be a mesmerizing figure, and millions of fans around the world agree. 

Bowie was iconic because he was so revolutionary and transformative. Quite simply, he was the most compelling figure in 20th Century music, and the most innovative in rock.  

Bowie’s self-titled debut in 1967, when he was just 20, gave no real hint at what was to come… other than the fact that it was odd, experimental and daring — relative to the pop music of the time. It mixed pop, theatrical music and cabaret, along with the psychedelia of the day. A peculiar blend, to be sure. Needless to say, it produced no hits. 

The singer wouldn’t release another album for over two years, but in the meantime he immersed himself in dance classes and the dramatic arts, including mime and avant-garde theater. During this period, Bowie also took an interest in folk music and poetry. Yes, he was the consummate artist; always seeking and exploring.  

The single “Space Oddity” was released on July 11, 1969, just five days prior to the Apollo 11 launch. The song, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, reached the top five in the UK, becoming Bowie’s first hit. 

The ensuing album, which featured “Space Oddity” as a single, was initially titled David Bowie, just like his debut. However, it was eventually renamed Man of Words/Man of Music for its November 1969 US release, and finally Space Oddity when it was re-released in 1972 (yes, three different titles for the same LP). The album, which was not a commercial success upon its release, was a mix of folk music and hippie rock — far from the sounds that Bowie would soon unleash. 

The Man Who Sold the World followed in 1970, and ushered in a heavier sound that wasn’t all that different from what Cream, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were doing at the time. The divergence from the previous album was striking, as was the diversity between all three of Bowie’s releases to this point. Clearly, he was an artist intent on not repeating himself. 

This is the previously mentioned album whose cover featured Bowie wearing a dress and reclining on a chaise lounge. It was the beginning of his androgynous phase, and was certainly meant to shock. It probably worked. Other rock stars weren’t wearing dresses at this time. Did they ever? 

Nirvana famously covered the title track for their MTV Unplugged album, and it may ultimately be the album’s most well-known song as a result. But the album yielded no hits at the time of its release.  

Bowie reverted to more of a pop sound for his next release, 1971’s Hunky Dory, which contained the hit “Changes,” as well as “Life on Mars?” The album is at times kitschy and introspective, but contains cleverly catchy songs, many of which are beautifully wistful. 

When I was in high school, more than a decade after the album’s release, my psychology teacher played “Changes” for us, presenting the song as a tale of teenage angst, loneliness and isolation. We dissected the lyrics, which seemed to describe the universal challenges of young people trying to fit in, and to make sense of themselves in a world of adults who didn’t understand them. I was fascinated and enthralled. 

Hunky Dory sold reasonably well at first, but it wasn’t a major commercial success. That would soon change with the release of his next album. 

Debuting in 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars would alter the course of Bowie’s career, and of rock music itself. The album introduced his first, and perhaps greatest, character. It is a concept album that positions Ziggy as a rock star who acts as an intermediary between humanity and space aliens. Far out stuff. Teenagers ate it up. 

The album is widely hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, and was truly ground breaking. Bowie mixed theater, music and science fiction into an exciting new brew of rock n roll, unlike anything that had come before it. Bowie was intent on setting trends; not following them. 

He was now an international mega star. He had a devoted audience who were willing and open to being challenged by the singer’s exotic imagination and wild creativity. 

Bowie created the Aladdin Sane character for the album of the same name the following year, and it debuted at the top of the UK charts, driven by “Panic In Detroit,” “The Jean Genie” and a raucous cover of the Stones “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” 

To attempt to highlight Bowie’s long and enduring career, much less to attempt to illustrate it, would require a biography, and the limitations of this format (not to mention your patience, perhaps) will not allow for such an examination. So, I will attempt to be relatively brief. 

Surprising everyone, Bowie went on to explore soul music — quite an ambition for a white Brit in the mid-‘70s — on Young Americans (’75) and Station to Station (’76). In fact, he became in 1975 one of the first white artists to appear on Soul Train, performing “Fame” (his first US No. 1 hit) and “Golden Years.”   

Bowie then changed gears once again, recording a trio of very experimental albums with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti in Berlin. Known as the “Berlin Trilogy,” Low (’77), Heroes (’77) and Lodger (’79) saw Bowie continually evolving and challenging himself, not to mention his listeners. The first two albums contain whole sides of music - sans vocals - that sound like they were intended as the score to a sci-fi thriller: spacey, eerie and odd. Once again, Bowie was really far out, way ahead of his audience. 

This was an artist intent on continually taking chances, showing a bold willingness to defy convention, challenging his audience to follow him, and daring radio programmers to play his songs. It must have driven his record company (RCA) mad. They were, after all, in the business of mining hits and making money. But Bowie had uncovered — or created — an audience that would go along on his wildly artistic and creative ride. The fans never seemed to think he’d lost the plot. 

Bowie returned to a slightly more mainstream sound with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980, which spawned the classics “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion.”   

Bowie had studied pantomime as a young man, and this influence/interest showed up when he appeared as Pierrot, the sad clown, in the video for “Ashes to Ashes,” which was at the time the most expensive music video ever made. 

The record company must have been pleased, and the pressure was on for Bowie to continue delivering more radio-friendly material.   

Released in 1983, Let’s Dance became the best-selling album of Bowie’s career, reaching No.1 in both the US and UK, among several other countries. The album, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers (which was a daring choice for an alternative rock star), spawned three huge international hit singles: the title track, “Modern Love” and “China Girl.”

But Bowie had misgivings about the album, and felt he had to pander to a new audience due to its success. 

“It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity,” said Bowie in a 1997 interview. 

He said the album caused him to fall into a creative rut for a few years, and that he was suddenly writing for his audience, rather than himself.

”I remember looking out over these waves of people [who were coming to hear this record played live] and thinking, 'I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?' I suddenly felt very apart from my audience. And it was depressing, because I didn’t know what they wanted."

How many artists would say that upon achieving the greatest commercial success in a career that had already spanned more than a decade-and-a-half?

Bowie wasn’t chasing hits, money or fame for the sake of fame. He was chasing artistic integrity. He was seeking an enduring career that would be respected by his true fans and by fellow artists. He answered only to his muse. 

That’s what kept Bowie such a vital and engaging artist through the 1990s, and into the new millennium. To me, Bowie was just as magnificent on Black Tie White Noise, Earthling, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, and Blackstar as he had ever been. 

He seemed to have a limitless well of creativity, resulting in soul-stirring music filled with fascinating sounds and compelling lyrics. For some artists, the well eventually runs dry; the muse abandons them. For Bowie, that was never the case. 

He was the consummate artist, first and foremost. Music was just one manifestation of his expression. He didn’t just create music; he created characters for his music, as well as for the stage and screen. Bowie appeared in more than a dozen films, and was equally natural in that medium as on a stage filled with fellow musicians. 

For him, it was all about the art — all forms of it.

Bowie was an art collector, a painter and a visual artist. He loved, and frequented, art galleries. He enjoyed the ballet, theater and all the cultural activities that his adopted home, New York City, had to offer. 

When Bowie met his eventual wife, the model Iman, in 1990, he was living as a tax exile in Switzerland. She was a transplanted New Yorker (by way of Somalia), who persuaded him to relocate to the Big Apple with her. 

The couple married in 1992, and New York became their home from that point forward. Bowie emphatically declared, “I’m a New Yorker!” to SOMA magazine in 2003, more than a decade after his arrival, saying he’d lived there longer than any other city.  

New York clearly suited Bowie. It’s grittiness, complexity, diversity and abundant arts culture were tailor made man for a man of his ilk. 

Bowie was a man who wore many masks, and who used them to express all facets of his complex personality. He was an actor at heart, thrilled to play different roles and different characters. He couldn’t imagine playing Ziggy for more than a couple of years - much less forever - though many of his fans surely wished he did. It was too limiting. He explored the character and moved on. 

That became a recurring theme through the years. 

Bowie saw music as just one of the many art forms he sought to integrate, such as theater, film, dance and fashion. More than once he conceived albums as theatrical productions. 

Diamond Dogs was intended to be musical interpretation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and ended up being a marriage of the former and his own post-apocalyptic theme.

Outside was also a concept album devised as a theatrical piece. It was conceived as a dystopian vision of 1999, a time when the government investigates the phenomenon of Art Crime. Murder and mutilation have become a new underground art craze. It’s the stuff of a David Lynch film. Bowie said the album was thematically related to Diamond Dogs.

“We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really is every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III,” Bowie later said. "The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience.”  

Once again, Bowie felt compelled to move on. Perhaps his lack of patience was an asset. Why retread old ground? 

So many of Bowie’s contemporaries were influenced by old bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, or rock’s early pioneers, such as Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Little Richard and Elvis.

While the young Bowie enjoyed them all, he was eventually captivated by the Velvet Underground. He was taking pages from other, completely different, books. Bowie also loved Andy Warhol and immortalized the famed artist in a song bearing his name on Hunky Dory. 

Early on, Bowie’s abstract interests were evident.   

A 14-year-old Bowie became so infatuated with jazz greats Charles Mingus and John Coltrane that his mother gave him a plastic alto saxophone. It remained Bowie’s primary instrument throughout his long career (he also played the guitar, keyboard, harmonica, stylophone, viola, cello, koto, thumb piano, drums and percussion). Jazz remained a passion and an influence throughout his career; it’s free form structure perfectly suited Bowie’s tastes. He was a lover of the avant-garde and the esoteric. 

That’s what set him apart from his peers in the 1970s, and from the wannabes, followers and adherents he inspired in the 1980s. 

TV executive and author Bill Flanagan, who worked with Bowie on several TV projects, had this to say about the star on CBS News Sunday Morning: 

"Bowie the musician was the most influential figure to appear in rock music after the 1960s. Without Bowie, there would be no Lady Gaga or Nirvana, no U2 or Madonna.

Bowie appeared when the standard for rock & roll credibility was authenticity. Musicians were expected to sing their diaries, to perform in the same jeans they wore off stage.

Bowie did not value authenticity one bit. He knew that as soon as a performer stepped into the spotlight, he was in theatre. Why not use all of the tools and resources theatre offered? 

He denied his songs were about himself. Like an actor, he moved from role to role.” 

I was too young to have seen Bowie in the ‘70s, and for one reason or another never got to see him in the ‘80s either. But at that point, I knew him only for his hits — the songs played on FM radio as I grew up; the ones found on his greatest hits package, Changesbowie. 

The first time I saw Bowie live was on the Outside Tour, in October 1995, at the Forum in LA. It was a fascinating and riveting performance, pairing Bowie — somewhat oddly — with Nine Inch Nails as co-headliners. Bowie said he was well aware that most of NIN’s audience was very young, and that most of them were unfamiliar with his music — especially since he was not playing his hits. He felt challenged to win them over each night. He also admitted that most of his fans didn’t like the pairing of the two bands. 

On the opening day of the tour, September 14, 1995, Bowie asked USA Today, “How do you commit commercial suicide? Well, you do this: play songs from an album that hasn’t been released yet, and complement it with obscure songs from the past that you’ve never done on stage."

That encompasses the daring of Bowie. He was always up for a challenge. 

I saw Bowie once more on his final tour, in support of the album Reality. On April 22, 2004, I sat center-stage, in the third row, at Hollywood’s Greek Theater and had my mind blown. Bowie was the consummate performer: powerful, alluring, charming, sexy, sophisticated, witty and in great voice. The audience was enraptured and couldn’t take their eyes off him; he was a powerful presence. It was a stellar performance, and he made it look effortless. I felt so fortunate to be there. Little did I know, he would never tour again. 

But Bowie remained vital and highly creative right until the very end, releasing (after a ten-year absence) his brilliant The Next Day in 2013, and finally his coda, Blackstar, on his birthday this year. They are not the works of an artistically spent man. They speak to his vitality and artistic vigor. They are the standout works of a highly creative man with lots more to say, and give.

While life is a challenge, so is dying gracefully. Yet, Bowie pulled it off with aplomb, as he had done with every other artistic challenge he confronted during his five-decade career.  

As Tony Visconti, his longtime friend and collaborator, put it, “His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

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In what are perhaps the final photos of Bowie, promotional shots taken for his Website in conjunction with the release of Blackstar, he is seen smiling joyfully, and dressed splendidly in a perfectly tailored grey suit, with a matching fedora. 

As a friend said to me, “He was a model for how to live and experience joy, right until the very end.”

I concur. Bowie’s smiling, cheery and triumphant image reveals a state of grace.

David Bowie didn’t just teach us how to live creatively, fearlessly and honestly. He taught us how to die joyously.

What greater legacy could one have?

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©2016