One of the first vinyl albums I bought was Let’s Dance. I bought it because of the crying guitar of Stevie Ray Vaughn on the title track and the pop catchiness of “Modern Love.” I also knew that the character in Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” was loosely related to Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
I completely lost track of Bowie until 1997 when he produced a collaboration with Trent Reznor on “I’m Afraid of Americans” which was a sort of sequel to 1975’s “plastic soul” of “Young Americans;” a tune like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” that should not be confused with any sort of pro-American sentiment. Great artists have a way of making criticism fun. Bowie made us want to dance as Rome burned around us.
He went in an electronic direction with 1997’s Earthling. It was a transformation that made sense as the late 90’s found itself sharpened by an industrialized edge when it seemed everything alternative was purchased by major labels after Lollapalooza’s financial windfall. He was the first to buck the system by pre-releasing 1999’s Hours… for complete download over the Internet before the official release two weeks later. Radiohead would be the next major act to do this several years later with In Rainbows and change the way we buy music from that day forward. Napster was changing everything in the music business at the same moment in history and Bowie knew it. He embraced the change rather than resist it like his younger contemporaries and in doing so found a way to make it more real by closing the gap between the artist and the consumer. He used a hyperreality of his own invention in order to drive people to something more tangible and grounded.
I started to listen to everything he created before 1983 after Howard Stern dedicated almost an entire show to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in a completely random series of segments. He just played the music. It was the live version of “Moonage Daydream” that locked me in to Bowie for the next several years. I was blown away. His voice and style formed its own nexus that bent musical genres with the same skill as Prince who did the same thing from another angle. But Bowie got there first.
From the dystopian Diamond Dogs to the spaced-out romance with humanity of Ziggy, I totally vibed with his presentation of mixed and ambiguous personae. When he made a conscious decision to put his stamp on inhabiting different characters and merging his love of theatre and performance art with the uncanny ability to craft a solid hook, music changed. But no one was ever able to do the same thing. Alice Cooper did it in his way as did perhaps the New York Dolls or even KISS. Prince came the closest, but there was only one Bowie and his music was his own genre cut from the cloth of everything he loved. He called himself a “synthesist” and was the greatest musical bricoleur to whom we have had the pleasure of listening.
What he taught me is that being strange was cool. Doing what you love is the most important thing. Becoming who you choose to be is perhaps the greatest privilege of humanity. Don’t let systems crush your spirit. The one thing that we all have at the center of what it means to be human is the moment when we are free to choose an end for ourselves. I suppose that his cancer is something of an ironic demise.
In his final album I think Bowie might tell us want he wants us to do in his absence. Don’t stop because he did. Tap into the creative spirit he found to express what words alone failed to do. And then go and do it. Make your art and change the world, because it’s a messed up place. Let’s not make it any messier.
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar)