I woke up this morning and went to perform my ritual of scanning the news before I hop in the shower. As I picked up my iPad, I saw a text from my friend Travis from almost 3 in the morning. All it said was, “wtf. Bowie died?”
I was stunned. I had to scan the headlines. There is absolutely no reason Travis would make this up, but holy shit. Just three days ago Bowie put out Blackstar, one of his finest albums, accompanied by two bizarre music videos where he seemed so lively, voice better than it had sounded in a while. But there it was. David Bowie died after an 18-month battle with cancer.
As somebody who has spent their whole life looking up to musicians and actors, trying to figure out a place for myself by idolizing colorful characters, this loss hits me pretty hard. This is the first time somebody I’ve looked up to since I was a kid has died. Somebody whose music and myth inspired and fascinated me from my teenage years into adulthood.
And make no mistake, David Bowie was a mythic human being.
Bowie is everybody. From the folk rocker, to the androgynous glam rock god of Ziggy Stardust, to the emotionless Thin White Duke, to the pop mega star of the ‘80s, to the electronic guy in the ‘90s, Bowie reinvented himself continually throughout his career and always stood alone. Here is a man who was marketed with the tagline, “There’s old wave. There’s new wave. And there’s David Bowie.” There was nobody like him, and he could be anybody he wanted.
There is a different Bowie persona for wherever you are in life. David Bowie could always be anything you wanted him to be, but had seemingly capped off his career in the 2000s with a role we never wanted: the recluse.
The magic of Bowie was in the mystery. The question was always, how could he keep changing himself to stay fresh while other artists fell into the same old patterns and wore out their welcome? But then it turned to, where did Bowie go? Following a 2004 heart attack while on tour, he pretty much vanished. Was he on his deathbed? Could he even sing anymore? Would he ever do anything in public ever again?
When Bowie shocked the world on January 8, 2013 – his 66th birthday – by releasing “Where Are We Now?” and announcing The Next Day, his website promoted the new single and album by saying, “David is the kind of artist who writes and performs what he wants when he wants…when he has something to say as opposed to something to sell. Today he definitely has something to say.”
“Something to say.” The statement of Bowie’s final two albums is what stands out most in the immediate aftermath of his passing.
Longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti has now said that Blackstar was a calculated final statement from Bowie, telling the world that he was dying. A pretty powerful statement in itself. But taken together, The Next Day and Blackstar are an unbelievable way to close out one of the greatest careers in music history.
At a time when rock acts from the ‘60s through ‘80s hang on because of nostalgia, David Bowie was nowhere to be found. He didn’t market himself on any old image, people just reminisced about whatever version of Bowie they wanted, whether it was Ziggy Stardust or the absurdly ‘80s Labyrinth. But he was nowhere to be found to put his stake in the ground and soak in the glory of what was.
But Bowie was never an artist content to sell himself based on what he did before. Bowie was always an artist with something to say, always looking to build and grow rather than play it safe. When “Were Are We Now?” came out it was a shock to everybody. Bowie had been gone for nearly 10 years, and then emerges with a solemn ballad and an announcement of a new album.
And what an album it was. It was recorded in secret, with Bowie setting out to reaffirm his place as one of the world’s greatest rock stars. Visconti said in the build up to The Next Day that it was “quite a rock album.” Indeed it was. Bowie came out with his most biting, urgent and rocking album in nearly 30 years. If there were any doubts about his health or ability to make music, they were silenced instantly. And to make it better, Bowie did no press to promote the album and didn’t even play a single track live. He let loose his statement on the world, then vanished.
The statement was clear: While other acts his age would rest on their laurels and coast by on memories, David Bowie wanted to create, build and keep making some of the most inspired and determined music of his career. While everybody else is looking back, Bowie had his sights set on moving forward.
The first time listening to The Next Day was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as a fan of anything. Bowie had made solid albums in the early 2000s with Heathen and Reality, what we assumed would be the last two of his career. They’re good, but not in that upper echelon of his music. So with an album like The Next Day, shrouded in mystery and led with two singles that sounded a little more like Old Man Bowie than Old School Bowie, you didn’t know what you were going to get.
iTunes had the whole album up for free streaming in the days before the release. I checked it out one night and was floored. Right from the opening fire of the title track, it was clear this was going to be an album for the ages. Bowie sounded strong, aggressive, confident, like a man with something to prove. If not something to prove, then a stern reminder that there is only one David Bowie.
Later that year, The Next Day Extra came out, which was material that didn’t make the final album. It was phenomenal. This sudden, unexpected resurgence of Bowie saw him reclaiming his place atop music’s hierarchy, and he was doing it on his terms. No public appearances. No interviews. Just the occasional image, and a whole lot of rock.
And three years later, Bowie leaves us with Blackstar. The statement here is most obviously, “Goodbye.” Songs like the title track, “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” clearly sound like a man singing about the end. But Bowie isn’t an artist who would simply say farewell to everybody and die. There’s a more powerful message in his final album.
Bowie’s statement upon his return was that he wasn’t going to sit back and coast on the past. He was going to innovate and keep pushing forward. Blackstar adds to that message from The Next Day, but now carries an even more triumphant weight. In the face of death, Bowie’s gift to fans wasn’t a final album full of nostalgia. It was one of the weirdest, most innovative and interesting albums he’s ever made.
While every other classic artist fails to really break new ground, Bowie kept pushing and searching for something new even when he knew it was the last time. People will say how sad or haunting Blackstar is now realizing the album and music videos were all done as a message about his death, but that isn’t really right.
In death, Bowie was still looking to the future. In the title track, somebody takes the figure’s place to become a “Blackstar.” There will be life after his death. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” includes a harmonica line straight out of “A New Career in a New Town.” He’s singing about the end of his life, but at the same time the music is telling us there’s something new on the horizon. This may be the end of Bowie here, but it’s not the end of the trip. He’s telling us the ride is going to continue somewhere else, for all of us.
And that’s the beauty of David Bowie.
Bowie doesn’t just leave behind music and lyrics. He doesn’t leave behind an image or a persona.
Even in death, David Bowie stands tall as a symbol. That we have no greater gift in life than our ability to create. That there’s no greater thing you can do but to be yourself, no matter who you want that person to be. That you should never be afraid to grow or change because the fantastic voyage is always going to continue.
But Blackstar also served as one final reminder. There will always be people who try to innovate. There will always be new stars, new flavors of the month. There will always be heroes and icons. But there will only ever be one David Bowie.
He was an artist. The greatest artist.