Text by Dawoud Kringle
On January 10th, 2016, the world was saddened to learn of the death of one of the most iconic figures in the history of rock music; David Bowie.
It’s difficult to imagine a more chameleon-like figure. Unlike most popular musicians whose success depended on sustaining what propelled them to notoriety in the first place, Bowie’s success was defined by constant change.
He’d started his career within the cultural context of late 60s London, having scored a hit single with “Space Oddity.” This set the stage for the beginning of an unprecedented unfolding of music, imagery, and stage persona. Bowie would never stay in one place. Those of us who grew up during the Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane era, were suddenly presented with a new manifestation of Bowie’s persona to deal with. At the time, he was quoted in Rolling Stone that he disliked rock music because it was “sterile and fascist.” It’s difficult to describe the surprise we felt at the time. Yet he followed up these controversial remarks with new approaches, again and again, that always managed to hold our interest. He would never become boring or predictable. We’d come to expect the unexpected.
And while these changes became less drastic as the years went by, Bowie always stayed one step ahead of the trends, and constantly offered fresh and innovative ideas.
His music was always memorable and innovative, partly because he drew from a vast and eclectic reservoir of musical ideas, and partly because he always surrounded himself with brilliant musicians whose own creativity challenged and inspired his (a small sample: Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Chuck Hammer, Reeves Gabriel, Nile Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Sterling Campbell, etc. as well as collaborations with Queen, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Brian Zeno, Robert Fripp, and others. He’d even sung a duet on TV with Bing Crosby.
His discography spans from the 1960s to within months of his passing, with an amazing twenty six releases as a leader.
His fascination with art and theater (he’d studied acting and mime) led to his trademark theatrics. Theatrics has been part of rock music since the days of Bill Haley & the Comets, Chuck Berry, and Screaming Jay Hawkins, but Bowie employed it in ways nobody did before him, and few since. What set him apart was how he drew from genres of visual art, theater, and film, and synthesized it into rock theater. On stage and in video, his sense of irony, style, and flamboyance were always executed with an unmistakably innovative artistic eloquence.
He was also an accomplished actor having appeared in films such as The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Last Temptation of Christ, Labyrinth, The Hunger, etc. He also acted in live theater, such as playing John Merrick in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man.
On January 8th, his 69th birthday, and two days before he died, Bowie released the video of the single Lazarus, from his last release Blackstar. The fact of the striking and potent imagery was no surprise, as the world had come to expect this from Bowie long ago. What became obvious in retrospect was that he, having been diagnosed with liver cancer 18 months earlier, was presenting the spectacle of his own death to his audience. Bowie looked old (it’s so difficult to imagine an old David Bowie…), yet was still the vibrant and powerful artist / performer he’d always been, and made a haunting and self revelatory final statement. Consider the imagery (and the fact that he was dying of cancer when he made the video). He’s in a bed, blindfolded, and beginning to rise from the confines of the bed. Then, in another persona, he’s seemingly more happy and confident, but then, sits down to write. He doesn’t know what to write. But then he gets inspired. He begins to write furiously, and his pen continues to write, even though he has no more paper – he has more to say, but time has run out. Then, he climbs into the dark wardrobe.
The message he sent us on his deathbed is obvious: life is too short. There will never be a “right time.” If you’re going to do it, do it now. Or never.
To the very last moment, Bowie held fast to his mission as a consummate artist. It was our good fortune to have witnessed his work. We shall not see his like again.