Friday January 8 was a special day: not only had we successfully made it past the first full week of the year but it was also the release date of the new David Bowie album—and there haven’t been many of those over the last ten years! Made to coincide with his 69th birthday, the launch of Blackstar was surrounded by much hype and renewed expectations. Post-Apocalyptic, enigmatic and complex, Blackstar was, however, hardly given a chance to develop a life of its own for over the weekend, just two days after its release, David Bowie, perhaps the most imaginative, bizarre, wonderful and bounteous pop artist to have graced the world after WWII, checked out for the final time. As the new week dawned on the eastern banks of the Atlantic all the official channels of communication of the singer, his Facebook account, his Twitter feed, announced that he had “died peacefully surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer.”
Britain woke up on Monday morning to the news of the departure of one of its best-loved public figures, and what made it worse was that no one seemed to have anticipated it. True, there had been a major fright in 2004, when Bowie had had to cut his world tour short after he was diagnosed with a severely blocked artery. Bar the odd presentation, from that point onwards Bowie had more or less retired from the stage. But then, three years ago, out of the blue and in typical Bowie fashion, he announced the release of a new album, The Next Day. Suddenly, fans around the world could dream that Bowie was back, that life was back to normal. Those dreams were fulfilled by the news in 2015 that yet another album, Blackstar, was on its way, cancelling all fears that The Next Day might have been a final hurrah. Blackstar, and specifically the second single of the album, “Lazarus”, promised a resurrection, a new beginning, a whole era to come to the tune of new Bowie songs. On the third day after that promise was made, however, it came tumbling down, shattered by the weight of reality.
David Bowie, née Jones, first came to prominence as a musician at the age of 22, with his second solo album titled, like the first one, David Bowie. His first attempt from 1967 had failed to make any impact on the sales charts but after a two-year pause in which he studied acting and miming Bowie was back with an album that in time would come to be known as Space Oddity. Released just a few days before the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, the emblematic title song was used by the BBC in live footage of the landing on the moon. Space Oddity foreshadowed the direction that Bowie’s career would take in the years to come, with a recurrent theme evident from the title of the album, deliberately reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2000: Space Odyssey (released in 1968), to the epic “Cygnet Committee”. Nevertheless, he had not yet arrived at the concept that over the course of the following decade would rule his life, not only artistically. While Bowie and his band dressed up extravagantly at the time, in the late sixties David Bowie was still David Bowie when he was onstage. That would soon change, but not before two other fantastic records saw the light of day, The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), a daring album that saw Bowie transforming himself into an androgynous character, fully dressed in drag to perform gems such as “Changes”, “Oh You Pretty Things” and “Life On Mars?” The ground had been laid for Ziggy Stardust to burst into the scene.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) is probably the closest thing there is to a perfect album. Ingenuous, imaginative, self-contained, wildly creative, engaging, entertaining and challenging at the same time it is not only Bowie’s masterpiece, it is one of the most remarkable artistic creations of its time, regardless of the genre. From the evocative front cover by George Underwood, the same George Underwood who ten years earlier had brawled with David Bowie over a girl and left him with a permanently dilated pupil, to the story of Ziggy Stardust, a “well-hung” left-handed guitar genius modeled after the late Jimmy Hendrix who together with the Spiders from Mars took contemporary music by storm, the album is simply flawless.
Bowie captured the imagination of the people through his outrageous alter ego, not so much because it was a portrait of the spirit of the times but rather because it was a fabrication that appealed to the fantasies of an era that was in the process of demolishing all kinds of boundaries. As has been pointed out in recent years by prominent members of the English literary establishment, the swinging sixties (which actually encroached well into the seventies) were only the swinging sixties for some. It’s not so as if every man in the late sixties and early seventies in London wore leotards, suicidal stiletto shoes and several layers of makeup. But most everyone felt a certain admiration for those who challenged the establishment, and when it comes to that Bowie not only pushed the envelope, he actually rammed his way past anything he found on his path, doors, windows and fortified walls included.
After touring for over a year, Bowie, whose brother suffered from schizophrenia, was forced to put his character on the shelf as he began to lose his grip on reality and to believe he was actually Ziggy Stardust. But the concept Bowie had discovered, building a stage persona behind whom he could hide and through which he could channel his considerable acting talent, remained a constant in his career for another decade. Ziggy Stardust’s successor, Aladdin Sane (“a lad insane”), was rather his reincarnation, though thematically the album veered away from extraterrestrial tropes, replacing them for Bowie’s American experience. Ziggy’s influence, however, could be palpably felt in Bowie’s full glam rock outfit, which survived until Diamond Dogs (1974).
By now, however, Bowie was living in the States, which heralded a new change of direction in his artistic inclinations. In the 1975 soul-infused Young Americans he did away altogether with the glam rock look, and in 1976 his career as an actor took off with his gripping portrayal of The Man Who Fell to Earth. The character played by Bowie in the movie served to mould his next stage persona, The Thin White Duke, an impeccably dressed, sharp-looking man, all shell and no substance, who flourished fully in his next album, Station to Station (1976).
By then Bowie was again on the verge of self-destruction. After two years of debauchery and excess in America Bowie had become badly dependent on cocaine and had squandered much of his money. He decided to quit Los Angeles and head to Germany, where he took up residence in Berlin in a house with three other lodgers, one of whom was Iggy Pop. This was the start of what is often referred to as a pop culture miracle, a marriage made in heaven. Financially stretched, yearning to kick his habit, and in the company of a like-minded free spirit, Bowie turned to art and music for shelter. The result has often been heralded as inspired, though the nature of the albums he composed in Berlin, more atmospheric, largely instrumental and focused on mood rather than storyline, is radically different to anything he had ever done before.
By 1979 Bowie felt he had accomplished his task in Berlin. In little over a decade he had travelled the road from being an obscure young artist to becoming a global star to experiencing the pitfalls of excess and resurfacing from the clutches of perdition. Now the time had come to make back some money. Before that, though, Bowie finalized his divorce from his first wife, Angie, with whom he had been together since 1969 and who had mothered his first child, Zowie. Back in New York, Bowie released Scary Monsters (And Super Freaks), with the title song and the intoxicating “Ashes to Ashes” as outstanding singles. It was the fist of a series of hits for Bowie, who recorded Let’s Dance in 1983, continued to develop his acting career with lead roles in The Hunger (with Catherine Deneuve) and the critically acclaimed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (both from 1983), and performed “Dancing in the Street” together with Mick Jagger for Live Aid in 1985. However, for the generation of children who, like me, grew up in the eighties, the unforgettable and irresistibly perturbing memory of David Bowie, the memory that will remain indelibly in our minds forever is that of the Goblin King in the film Labyrinth (1986).
Come the 1980s Bowie no longer saw the need to create fictional characters as vehicles to carry his music. His production from that point forward would be more observational, less urgent, and he would never again produce the kind of epoch-defining hit that had seemed so easy for him to concoct in previous decades. Instead of pleasing the masses Bowie now seemed content to please himself, though not in an indulgent way—his music never ceased to be challenging and curious. To top it all Bowie incorporated a fairytale element to his own life when he met supermodel Iman while touring in 1990. They married just a couple of years later and lived together until last Sunday. Throughout this period, Bowie had been speaking directly to the hoards of fans he had amassed worldwide, rather than to the public in general. Millions and millions of people who for a moment thought that the release of Blackstar was confirmation that Bowie would always be there, physically, launching album after album.
On Monday night, after the longest day imaginable at work, a few hundred of them gathered on the streets of Brixton, south London, where Bowie was born in 1947, to show their respect and celebrate the life and work of a man who for fifty years gave more to music than can even be tallied. Some were in full regalia, others clutched their beer cans too tightly, others still looked disorientated, as if expecting David himself to pop out of somewhere or at least someone to announce that it was only Lazarus who had died, and not the real David Bowie. But the announcement didn’t come, and as street musicians played the classics by the Bowie mural near the station a large crowd congregated outside the Ritzy Cinema under a sign that read “David Bowie, our Brixton boy.” The songs that sounded, when they finally did, were all over 30 years old, “Rebel, Rebel”, “Heroes”, “Space Oddity”, “Ziggy Stardust”, and of course “Starman”. It was a poignant reminder of how strong a handle on the imagination of the people Bowie had had all the way back when, it was a sad acknowledgement that this time there would be no unexpected comeback from the man himself, but it was also a clear message that the Starman will never die, that he will live on. Always. Forever.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on January 16 2016.