David Bowie knew he was dying. Despite contributions to the off-Broadway musical Lazarus and the release of his 25th studio album ★ on January 8th, he was more sick than the recent vitality let on. There was no open admission of decline, but it was hidden in plain sight: the record is saturated with thoughts on mortality and the recent music video for “Lazarus” depicted Bowie on his deathbed. Bowie is a legendarily evasive figure, and the dark imagery was in keeping with previously released songs and lyrics from the album. It wasn’t until January 10th, with the announcement of Bowie’s death from liver cancer two days after the release of ★ and his 69th birthday, that the world recognized the extent of its accuracy. David Bowie knew he was dying, and ★ is his epitaph.
I can’t remember the precise moment I heard David Bowie for the first time. I can’t claim with any authority, as a teenager in 1972 might, that Bowie changed my life. It wasn’t like there was a single conversion experience, epochal delineations of Before Bowie and After Bowie. Rather, it’s more like his continued presence in my life was preordained. It was his world and I was living in it, so it was only a matter of time.
Read Nile Rodgers discuss the making of “Let’s Dance” here
I do remember, however, my dad taking me to see the Reality tour in 2004. Bowie opened with “Rebel Rebel,” and even though we were in the nosebleed seats you could see the mass of people storming to the front of stage when the riff first kicked in. Bowie played his hits, although my knowledge wasn’t advanced enough to necessarily care if Let's Dance songs got more play than Ziggy Stardust anthems. I remember the searing piano of “I’m Afraid of Americans,” being thrilled by the triumphant lurch of “Five Years,” and Bowie’s vocal fragility on “Under Pressure” - he dropped down an octave to be able to hit notes in the chorus. Mostly, though, when I looked back at that concert it always felt like I cashed in the chips of experience too early. I never thought it would end up being my only chance at seeing the man in the flesh. Bowie had a heart attack later that year which ended the Reality tour, and after that he performed in public only a handful of times.
In the ensuing decade of hibernation Bowie gave me plenty of time to catch up. I was interested in his seemingly inevitable descent into and triumph over self-destruction. That he claimed to not even remember making the Station To Station album seemed beautifully decadent - he had a willingness to stare into the abyss, or perhaps the inability to turn away.
Bowie made the best music of his career during this period, drying out in Berlin with Iggy Pop. But you’re hearing someone dissolve their own psyche to the point of total disappearance. There are stories of Bowie working for hours on ten seconds of music, holing up in dank hotel rooms and accusing external forces of conspiring to steal his soul through black magic. The period was fantastically productive and more than a little tragic - there’s nothing romantic or glamorous about attempting suicide while driving around in a parking garage.
Imagine if David Bowie had actually died in 1976 following the release of Station To Station. We would still have heard Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory, Space Oddity, The Man who Sold the World and more - a stunning amount of ground Bowie covered from 1967 - 1975. But there would be no “Heroes,” no Low, no Berlin trilogy, no “Let’s Dance,” Scary Monsters, no “Dancing In the Street” or “Under Pressure” or, or, or...
Every memorial will propose a different canon, beholden to varying eras and characters. My personal experience of Bowie, however, is one of non-monogamous pleasure that can’t be demarcated by linear chronology. There’s the exhilarating breakdown in 1973’s “Panic In Detroit,” and the cascades of piano and longing coursing through “Life On Mars” from 1971. There’s the opening drum beat of “Five Years,” ushering in a story of resignation and celebration, and aspirational love overwhelming the emotional distance implied in the quotation marks of 1977’s “Heroes.” Even adding in mentions of the cauterized electronics and knowingly inverted xenophobia of 1997’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the glassy-eyed intro of 1981’s “Cat People,” and the plaintive nostalgia in “Where Are We Now?” from Bowie’s 2013 comeback LP The Next Day, there is much, much more.
Read producer Tony Visconti on the making of “Heroes” here
I’m remembering the performance of “Moonage Daydream” in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, where Mick Ronson’s scorching guitar and Bowie’s vocal delivery makes me go as wild thirty years after the fact as the crowd did at the original performance. This was Bowie’s power. His music transcended the time of its creation, living many second lives, morphing in appearance and impact - just like its creator.
Even in absence Bowie was entrancing - his voice could be as powerful as a ghostly echo or looped sample as it was anchoring the song. I’m thinking here of the swoops and feints in Aphex Twin’s remix of Philip Glass’ “Heroes” symphony, which envelop Bowie to hallucinatory effect, or the surprise appearance on Arcade Fire’s recent “Reflektor” - his voice unmistakable, even in the background.
When I listen to his music, it feels like Bowie’s life is flashing before my eyes in small increments of wonder and revelation. I was always enamored of the call-and-response in the final verse of “Space Oddity” - Major Tom’s final request to ground control to “Tell my wife I love her very much,” countered with the shrieking “She knows.” Bowie’s melisma, drawing out the second word, contains acres of emotion: pained assurance and loss, helplessness and fear. There’s a lot of humanity contained in just those few extra syllables.
Bowie’s lyrics were oblique enough to suggest numerous potential narratives while also crystallizing universal emotions. His music could be equally evasive, but it also contained obvious elements of whatever genre he had decided to work from as a template, be it standard rock & roll, jazz or drum & bass. He had a roundabout approach to remaking different genres in his own image - you could say he was highlighting the grey areas in a black-and-white world, but for Bowie it was more like fuchsia splitting the difference between red and purple. His career was chimerical in a way that eludes the possibility of tidy summations.
Bowie was all things to all people. For that reason, I’m not eager to consume the memorials telling me what to mourn and how. He was a living hyphen, able to work for decades as a musician, writer, painter, producer and actor. Everyone has a different favorite Bowie song, a different favorite phase or album - to think that one obituary can encapsulate those individual strands is a fool’s errand. The quantifiable aspects of his life pale next to the lasting impact of his music. I’m not sure they will help me understand him any more than what I felt listening to “Space Oddity,” or the final lines of “Lazarus”:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Oh, I’ll be free.
Just like that bluebird
I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me.
Bowie existed outside of biography, squarely in the realm of mythology. He was the man who fell to earth and I didn’t care where he came from, only that he was here.