Only Visiting: Remembering David Bowie
In a way, David Bowie was the leading actor in a generation of Renaissance men and women. He was among the company of brilliant cotemporaries like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, who were also his partners traversing the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll, glam, punk and many genres that defined future generations of artists. His journey through these manifestations of pop-culture allowed him to witness the tragedy of being vilified before being deified. Bowie’s last act was like much his storied career, he, before anyone else, saw that it was time for his curtain to fall and his physical presence come to an end. His departing gift to the world was Black Star, an album that bode farewell to his temporary visit here on the mortal plane. We now give praise to his existence in this time and place for allowing us to witness, participate and appreciate the perseverance of his legacy. Bowie, aka David Jones, passed on January 10, 2016 at the age of 69 after an 18_month battle with liver cancer and just two days after the release of Black Star. It took long moments to accept that his bright star had finally dimmed.
To suggest that his death, above all other, inspires nothing less than an unfillable void in one’s heart would be a false statement. In short, he was nothing less than inspiring. Bowie was the icon for provoking and defining cultural trends. His work spanned over five decades and his creative genius could be felt in all aspects of the arts– from music and film to fashion and beyond. Bowie’s life was the journey of one act to the next. While knowing a curtain might eventually fall, there was still always another character waiting in the wings to excite and wonder every generation of audiences, both new and old.
He was born in 1947 in Brixton, South London. At a young age, Bowie showed promise as a person with creative interests. American artists, like Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, inspired his musical aptitude. He also had an affinity for jazz greats, like John Coltrane. In 1958, after completing his eleven-plus exam, Bowie went on to Bromley Technical High School—a place that inadvertently has an impressive array of alumni, including Peter Frampton and Steven Severin of Siouxise and the Banshees. In the 1960’s, Bowie jumped onto the emerging beat trend. He participated in several groups including The King Bees, The Manish Boys and The Lower Third. The latter group was subject to Bowie pulling a fast one on them as he issued a press release stating that the band was called Davie Jones and the Lower Third. In 1967, after a name change to David Bowie, he released his debut album David Bowie. Unfortunately, the album did not well commercially and he did not release an album for two years until releasing another album called David Bowie in 1969 aka Space Oddity—renamed when released in 1972. The 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World would be the beginning of Bowie’s signature expression by experimenting with the glam style. In 1972, Bowie would team up with Lou Reed for Transformer.
Between 1972 and 1973, Bowie established his most remarkable personae, Ziggy Stardust. Stardust was the embodiment of all that was glitters and gold. His character portrayed the contrast of femininity by creating a space for the provocativeness of androgyny. It was through this character that Bowie would challenge the role of on-stage performances and direct glam rock towards its logical extreme. It was during this time that Bowie declared his gay identity—a daring announcement considering the mainstream culture’s opinion of homosexuality of the time. But once his character had become acceptable, it was time to retire and find a new identity. He would do this continually throughout his career, always pushing creative and cultural boundaries and then at the same time defining them. These changes could be seen through his musical expression and more vividly by his changing sense of fashion.
The late 1970’s saw Bowie dealing with controversies. He struggled to come to grips with an impressive drug addiction, had a brief sexual encounter with a 15-year old groupie Lori Mattix (https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/i-lost-my-virginity-to-david-bowie) and began professing an appreciation for fascism and Adolf Hitler. The latter claim was downplayed in an interview with Melody Maker in 1977. During the interview, Bowie explained that his “appreciation” came from a drug-addled mind. Over the latter course of his career, Bowie would take great pains to profess his stance of anti-fascism. From 1970 to 1980, Bowie was married to Marie Angela Barnett with whom he had a son Zowie Bowie. The relationship was largely considered an open one, as Bowie enjoyed a number of relationships with women and men, including Mattix. In 1974, Bowie released Diamond Dogs, an album that played with the sounds of soul and funk. It also featured a post-apocalyptic and Orwellian theme.
Between 1976 and 1979, Bowie produced three albums with Brian Eno. These works, Low, Heroes and Lodger, would make up the Berlin Trilogy. The albums were lauded as being influential and pushing the bounds of the experimental music. Bowie took cues from the Berlin scene, particularly from Kraftwerk and Neu! During the same period, Bowie also worked closely with Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life and The Idiot. Bowie would be credited as a co-writer and musician.
The 1980’s projected Bowie into the depths of pop and new wave. The year 1983 would see Bowie have his first major commercial breakthrough with Let’s Dance. Though Let’s Dance was largely a departure of the experimental, it made a noticeable impact into the pop realm. Also in 1983, during an interview with MTV, Bowie leveled heavy criticism at the network for its little coverage of black artists. In 1981, Bowie worked with Queen for the hit “Under Pressure.” Bowie worked with Mick Jagger on releasing a version of Martha and the Vandellas’ hit “Dancing in the Streets.” The project was intended to help raise money for Live Aid. 1986 would see Bowie as Jareth in Jim Hensons’ cult classic, Labyrinth. This character was not his first movie role, as he had starred in numerous other films, including The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), Just a Gigalo (1978) and Jazzin for Blue Jean (1983). Bowie would go on to have memorable roles in several other films, including a cameo in Zoolander (2001) and as a very convincing Nikola Tesla in the Prestige (2006).
The 1990’s through the early 2000’s saw Bowie explore the realms of electronica and neoclassical. In 1992, Bowie married Somali-American Iman with whom he had a daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Zahra Jones. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He actively toured to support his work until 2004 when he suffered a heart attack. Bowie continued to produce albums up until his death. On January 8, 2016, two days before he died, his last album Black Star was released to wide critical acclaim. It ended up being his first album to reach number 1 in the charts. It is suggested that the album was a parting gift to his fans and if one were to watch the music video for “Lazarus,” one can certainly catch a glimpse of this intent.
Bowie’s death is arguably the one that has hit the hardest in recent memory. His work invoked nostalgia for the past, present and future. Bowie challenged contemporary fashion and remade it into something with splendor, giving the world a much needed light. Everything he touched seemed to change the rules and defy expectations. But, perhaps above all, he represented a unique but fading sincerity in the world. He was among the last of an impressive list of icons that inspired those who listen to be weird and dream of something more. Bowie had an undeniably special talent for fascinating his fans as he narrated the tales of the evolving pop-cultural world with all of its extremes, experimental stages, struggles and celebrations. Despite an impressive public life, the last act saw David Jones quietly and unassumingly shed his final character as he disappeared into the night. In a prearranged orchestration, Jones arranged to have his body privately cremated with no friends or family present. He is greatly missed, but there is some comfort that he left this world to the beat of his own drum—a style that perfectly represented how he lived his life. Rest in Power Mr. Stardust.
By Nick Kuzmack