David Bowie was coming out of the wilderness when he died.
He’d been stricken with cancer but had kept it secret from the public, which meant his death at 69 years old seemed sudden and thus that much more of a shock. How perfectly David Bowie. Hadn’t he just released a new album, Blackstar, as part of his rebirth? Rebirth seems ironic now. Weren’t the media gearing up for another round of second guessing. What’s he up to now?
It’s a testament to his allure that he hadn’t made a really important album since Scary Monsters And Super Creeps more than 35 years ago. In the mid-70s to early 80s he’d captured our imagination and kept it. Thus we followed him wherever he went because it never was less than interesting and, who knows, Ziggy Stardust might live again.
That wasn’t going to happen but his last few records hinted that he could be finding his pre-Ziggy Hunk Dory form with stronger songs and less clutter. Like many rock personalities his age or older, Bowie had nothing to prove and his story was well known. Not having to invent a persona or anticipate some commercial trend freed him to make the music he wanted, whichever way he wanted to make it. Blackstar, his jazz album, was like that.
He was sprung upon the public as a fully formed rock star called Ziggy Stardust. He wasn’t; he was David Bowie. He’d made a few records, had a hit in Space Oddity, had trained to be a mime, had an interest in film, theatre and pop-art. He courted controversy because he knew that media thrived on controversy. Prior to Ziggy, Bowie wore dresses and declared he was gay. He was primed to be a different. outrageous rock star from anyone who’d gone previously. So, he became one. You couldn’t write about David Bowie, you had to write about Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy had a band, The Spiders From Mars, that had an album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust. The album unlocked the key to Ziggy, who had a story to tell. Intrigued, the public bought the record and made it a hit, which made Ziggy a star inextricable from David Bowie. Ziggy was David, David was Ziggy.
If David Bowie wanted to do anything new, and he did, Ziggy had to die, which he did. By that time, Bowie was one of the most powerful people in rock, leader of the glam-rock movement and always newsworthy. It was then that David Bowie revealed himself as an intellectual.
He stated that concerts should entertain and educate. That could be interpreted on several levels. People go to concerts to be entertained, but, once among their peers, they learn how to behave, how to dress, how to talk. That’s their education, a reinforcement (or a changing) of their values. Then there is the concert itself. It might solely be entertainment and potentially frivolous, or all education, which would be boring. It all boils down to the performer to find the balance. To provide the audience with what it will take with it. This could be an introduction to new music or the emphasis on personality. A Bowie concert might have a theme or a design but it was never frivolous and always, to some degree, an education.
Bowie could manipulate the media, martial all his extracurricular experience – the theatre, film, fashion, pop art and pop itself – and people would pay attention. Thus, he revived the career of Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and created an awareness of Andy Warhol that was marginal before. He wasn’t just a student of pop culture, he embodied pop culture and was able to influence it.
This was new, too, someone who could step out from behind what he was doing and articulate it. Bowie dived into theatrical rock with Diamond Dogs, became the Thin White Duke, essayed avant garde, immersed himself in what he called plastic soul, brought art to video, and implicitly championed punk rock. Bowie created personae that that he could conceptualize intellectually and which gave him room.
It came at a cost. By Station To Station, he was addicted to cocaine, partly fueled by a relentless work ethic. In reaction, he let us see that he was a father, living clean, heterosexual and just like you and me. It was one of his biggest mistakes. Until Let’s Dance he was able to keep his private life private. What we didn’t know about him added to the intrigue. We liked him as an exotic, not this common man. Although the Let’s Dance album was a commercial high point, Bowie was never the same again. People stopped being interested, not helped by the albums seemingly getting weaker. Increasingly, he was growing marginalized.
He likely also was tired of being David Bowie. He formed Tin Machine as an attempt to retreat into the anonymity of being in a band and sharing all the decisions and everything else. Not a chance. How can there be a democracy when one of the number is David Bowie?
Tin Machine bombed colossally and continued his marginalization. He stopped leading and started following. The songs were cluttered and overproduced and overstated . He was becoming irrelevant. Seeming to awaken to this, with Reality, Bowie was warmer, simpler and more direct. He was coming back.
Bowie was still a visionary, able to anticipate where music was going and able to adapt. After all, anticipating the course of music was what he’d been doing throughout his career. The difference between the old and new David Bowie was that he wasn’t competing and had made peace with the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch -anges. They were inevitable. He might as well make the music that interested him. Blackstar is like that. What he would do next nobody knows.