David Bowie, the only hippie to successfully morph into a glam rocker, New Waver, and neo-fascist fashionista, died this week. The likelihood that he lives long past his expiration date stems from this penchant for freshness. Bowie adeptly rolled with the ch-ch-changes.
Rare among the hundreds of singers more looked at than listened to David Bowie uniquely deserves a listen or two — or two hundred. “Fame” and “Sound and Vision” feel at home in a discotheque, “Suffragette City,” “Panic in Detroit,” and “Rebel, Rebel” blare best out of a Marshall stack at an enormodome rock show, “Modern Love,” “Young Americans,” and “China Girl” naturally play before Casey Kasem rolls out the rest of the Top 40, and “Ashes to Ashes” sounds like the song you hear at a dank basement avant garde house party when you first notice your new German girlfriend’s Adam’s apple escaping the darkness. What you heard and what you saw always sounded and looked unlike what you already heard and saw.
Rob Sheffield waxed on the early-’80s era Bowie in his musical memoir Talking to Girls About Duran Duran:
There were so many Bowies I could barely keep track of them, but somehow the Bowie I liked best was the one from right now. The way he looked, sounded, and moved reminded me of C-3PO. Except not as cheerful. Sometimes he was a heavy-breathing rock stud, like in “Rebel, Rebel.” Sometimes he was a disco queen, like in “Fame.” Sometimes he was a crooner straight from The Lawrence Welk Show, sometimes he was Dracula with a head cold, sometimes he was a clown with an eye patch. Sometimes he was a lonely space traveler stuck on earth, doomed to wander around in disguise without ever finding a home, kind of like the Incredible Hulk. (“Don’t make me sexy! You wouldn’t like me when I’m sexy!”)
In a copycat world based on formulas and templates, Bowie created a template of rejecting formula. Fashions shift from bellbottoms to skinny jeans to back again. Viewers turn the dial from game shows in one generation to Westerns, sit coms, reality television, and talent shows in succeeding ones. But supposedly edgy rockers somehow wonder why their album didn’t sell when their previous one went platinum with that exact sound. Bowie grasped the easiest to understand but hardest to overcome reality of the human condition: change remains the only constant.
Longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer, about as different a figure from David Bowie as any who ever lived, noted that “drastic change is the most difficult and dangerous experience mankind has undergone. We are discovering that broken habits can be more painful and crippling than broken bones, and that disintegrating values may have as deadly a fallout as disintegrating atoms.” He observed that the Baby Boom, of which Bowie came from, represented something disastrous in the assimilation of so many juveniles into adulthood all at once. Surely a figure such as Bowie, emitting a vibe of space-alien androgyny, caused the older generation to wonder if they now inhabited a strange planet without ever blasting off. The world, particularly America where his position on the charts suffered relative to his homeland, adapted less easily than David Bowie.
When you offer reinvention as your primary invention, a few of your innovations inevitably bore rather than captivate. In 1975, he strangely sang “Song Sung Blue,” “One (Is the Loneliest Number),” and a number of other corny numbers with Cher on her television show. On par with the “Little Drummer Boy” collaboration with Bing Crosby, it wasn’t. His duet of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger, painfully immortalized in an MTV video and at Live Aid, lingers like an embarrassing yearbook picture. Former New York Giants football player Steve DeOssie, noting Bowie’s popularity in locker rooms before games in an interview on Boston radio station WZLX this week, quickly offered an addendum that “Dancing in the Streets” never made its way through the speakers. Bowie’s preachy, short-haired, almost heavy metal band Tin Machine saw Major Tom in the unique role of imitator rather than imitated. Cocaine is a helluva drug, one imagines Bowie — who snorted Rick Jamesian amounts — offering as a mea culpa.
Like all creative people, not all of his creations wowed. But creativity thankfully spawns much welcome creativity. Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs imitated his voice. Boy George and Lady Gaga raided his closet — and his make-up kit. After Bowie released his album Low in 1977, Nick Lowe hilariously countered with an EP called Bowi.
Amid the dazzling visuals, the music remains, endures, thrives even. “Under Pressure,” “Heroes,” “Life on Mars” — surely they prove less fragile than their author.
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