David Bowie: A Life & Death in Art, Dance and Melancholy
In 1967, psychedelic rock had finally pushed itself to the forefront of popular music. That year alone, The Beatles put out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, The Doors released their iconic self-titled record, New York’s favourite avant-garde custodians made The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released both Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love and perhaps most significantly, in retrospect, Pink Floyd debuted with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Not much of Bowie’s earliest work has any bearing on the kind of pathbreaking art he would later go on to make. The saccharine single ‘Love You till Tuesday’ makes some ardent fans want to pretend this entire record doesn’t exist. But perhaps the earliest signs of his Syd Barrett-inspired idiosyncrasies & whimsy (nice safe words for genuine lunacy) came through on this track, the closer of his first LP. Within a short two years, Bowie would evolve and write Space Oddity, a song and album most still know him by today, and truly come into his own. Barrett‘s drug-fueled brand of lunacy would find him disowned by his own band.
None of Stanley Kubrick’s incredible films, especially so 2001: A Space Odyssey, are pieces of art to inspire acoustic pop ballads, but here it is. One of Bowie’s most famous singles, Space Oddity, introduces the metaphorically semi-autobiographical character of ‘Major Tom’, whose story he would revisit and re-tell twice again in the future, decades later.
By the time, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust released in 1971, Bowie was a bonafide superstar in the UK. His style had evolved past the folksy ballads of Space Oddity, to genuine heavy rock (courtesy of a massive change in band personnel for The Man Who Sold The World). Bowie’s now-famed androgynous style and rumoured bisexuality were hugely controversial topics in his homeland, and he used its power to begin to really take creative control of his own public persona and mythology.
In a legendary interview with William S. Borroughs (one of the most radical and influential writers of the 20th century; this is no hyperbole) in Rolling Stone, Bowie described in detail his backstory for the Ziggy Stardust persona, while calling Mick Jagger, a rumoured lover, “incredibly sexy and very virile”.
In the four years between Ziggy Stardust and release of Young Americans, Bowie released two more albums with the Spiders from Mars (his backing band during this period), before pursuing his love for historically Black American genres like R&B, soul and funk. By this point, by all accounts, Bowie had transformed from the everyday consummate gender-fluid queer that inspired Ziggy Stardust, to a wispy-thin human-shaped container for vast amounts of cocaine.
By 1976 and the release of avant-garde masterpiece Station to Station, Bowie was still creatively a force the likes of which the world has seldom seen or ever will, but his years of mammoth drug abuse were catching up to his body and mind, visibly. He’d give rambling interviews with scarcely a coherent sentence, he had lost weight to an alarming degree, overdosed several times in a year, and found himself obsessed with the works of Neitzsche, those of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, and the Kabbalah.
For the rest of the 1970s, Bowie fled the spotlight of the UK and the USA to West Berlin. Along with good friend, Iggy Pop, he moved into an apartment in the underground cultural center of Berlin at the time, Kreuzberg. Here, Bowie would record three of his most famous albums, often referred to as “the Berlin trilogy”, with assistance from the legendary Brian Eno and long-time collaborative producer Tony Visconti. Low, the first of the three, dark and brooding, served as the aching threnody for his cocaine addiction, accurately depicting a distressed Bowie facing intense withdrawal. Lodger, the third, was an experimental pop study in minimalism, more influenced by Eno than the others. The centrepiece, Heroes, finds him at his most triumphant. Its title track, with its iconic guitar riff by Robert Fripp has stood the test of time as one of David Bowie’s all time greatest transcendental hits.
The 1980s found Bowie reborn. Finally putting his ultra-hedonistic past behind him, he left behind the band construct and went solo, hitting the highest peaks of his career in this era while consistently putting out iconoclastic yet popular dance music, collaborating with Nile Rodgers and Tina Turner in the best of their respective careers. Ashes to Ashes finds him revisiting the Major Tom character in a different light. A changed man.
After spending the ’90s dabbling in electronic music and a mixed response to a tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie reminded everyone of his rightful place as an elder statesman of music with this truly touching and heartfelt cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s America, performed live the month after the 9/11 attacks. From here, he slowly began to turn to a jazz-classical approach to art-pop music in the ’00s, a fine fit for a musician of his age and experience.
During a ten year break from releasing solo albums in the mid-to-late ’00s, Bowie spent his time collaborating as tastemaker, working with musicians he considered torchbearers and contemporaries, including but not limited to: The Arcade Fire, Massive Attack and TV on the Radio. Perhaps the most notable is this rework of Bring Me the Disco King, with features from John Frusciante, Maynard James Keenan, Danny Lohner, Milla Jovovich, Josh Freese and Danny Lohner.
Unfortunately, any story written about David Bowie, from hereon until eternity, ends here. Eighteen months ago, Bowie was diagnosed with a malignancy that led to liver cancer. In his final months, he recorded Blackstar, his last ever album (he released twenty seven LPs over almost fifty years). Before the initial positive reviews began to truly gain momentum, within three days of its release, Bowie was dead. In the immediate aftermath, at the time of writing, there is reason to believe (primarily via testimony from producer Tony Visconti, and emails to Brian Eno, both his collaborators from the Berlin era) that the timing was intentional and planned. Examining the entire album, which opens with the haunting lines “Look up here / I’m in heaven”, and even this accompanying video, it is clear that Bowie, showman for life, meant this to be his last work of art, to be released on his deathbed. Having controlled the tide of five decades of music and popular culture by sheer force of persona and talent, birthing and/or influencing genres from psychedelic to folk, art-pop to hard rock, heavy metal to electronica, jazz to neoclassical, Bowie could not resist letting go of creative control of his own death. He leaves this world on his own terms, in glory and immortality, with artful grace and poise.