David Bowie 1947 – 2016
David Bowie was never much of a singer, at least not in the conventional sense. His shaky timbre, as ripe for parody as Bob Dylan’s nasally whine – whom he imitated as a fledgling folky – nevertheless stood out in the crowded musical marketplace of the late sixties.
Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and a Stylophone, Bowie’s first taste of success came via an eerie song about an astronaut left alone to die in space. “Space Oddity,” released in July 1969 to coincide with the moon landing, propelled him into the charts – his first conceptual coup. His Dylanesque second album otherwise failed to launch.
Ironically, it was only after he dropped his folky pretensions that Bowie proved himself a worthy successor to Dylan. As if to illustrate the point, in 1971 Bowie penned “Song for Bob Dylan,” an affectionate parody/homage that waved goodbye to his hero whilst saying hello. The song knowingly parallels Dylan’s own career trajectory from folk singer to rock pioneer; in another parallel, Bowie describes Dylan’s voice as sounding “like sand and glue.”
If Dylan proved that a conventionally ugly voice need not be an obstacle to artistic achievement, Bowie made ugly seem beautiful. Not to overstate Dylan’s influence, but more than bad vocals or genius song writing chops, it was their shared gift for the conceptual (and, in Bowie’s case, a flair for the theatrical) that made them the most compelling figures in rock.
Dylan shifted gears so often that it was hard to keep up – a trick of the trade designed to put the artist one step ahead of the audience at all times. Bowie was cannier in how he conceived his celebrity, with a nod to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable forging an irresistible marriage of sound and vision that captivated fans throughout the seventies and early eighties.
During this time, Bowie’s public persona went through more incarnations than Vishnu. For the generation who grew up with him during his Ziggy Stardust phase, he was God (roll over, Eric Clapton) – especially in the UK, where by most accounts Bowie’s androgynous alien was the most exciting thing ever to hit the top ten. His presence was so widely felt that even the nihilistic Sex Pistols cited him as an influence (after nicking his equipment, of course).
In 1972, Bowie took Ziggy to America, where between tours he produced ex-Velvet Lou Reed on Transformer, giving Reed’s then-flailing career a much-needed kick in the pants; that same year he produced Iggy and the Stooges on their proto-punk classic Raw Power. In the spirit of the thing, he did a pretty lousy job (Iggy Pop remixed the album in 1997, which some critics saw as a betrayal of the punk aesthetic). Rounding off the most prolific period of his musical career, Bowie even gave away one of his best songs, “All the Young Dudes,” to Mott the Hoople.
Turning his back on New York’s burgeoning glam rock scene, Bowie set his sights on black America. Eschewing “authenticity” by playing up the artifice of his latest stylistic fling, he sought to reclaim the term “plastic soul”¹ (which describes the appropriation of black music by white Englishmen). Young Americans was, in his own words, “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.” In another ironic twist, the James Brown-influenced riff to “Fame” was later recycled by the Godfather of Soul himself.
Bowie’s relationship to black music only improved, peaking in 1976 with Station to Station, a truly unique blend of American and European sensibilities that perhaps only a white limey could have made. To dramatic effect, Bowie adopted a new persona named “The Thin White Duke,” whom he portrayed in interviews as a stylishly dressed, drug-impaired, Aryan fascist. It remains unclear how much of his own personality Bowie invested in the character.
After a string of successful albums in the late seventies, including the attractively melancholic Low with fellow genius Brian Eno, Bowie stopped making music. Two promising collaborations – a memorable duet with Queen in 1981 and a dance album with Chic’s Nile Rodgers in 1983 – were tantalising glimpses of an artist in decline. Just about every new album since was hyped as a “comeback” on release. Sadly, none of them lived up to the hype.
But the “master of reinvention” had one more trick up his sleeve. Last week, Bowie dropped his first album of new songs in 13 years. With its cryptic, foreboding lyrics (“Look up here, I’m in heaven”) and seemingly half-baked concept, Blackstar mystified some critics. Bowie brought the concept full circle two days later, when he quietly and unexpectedly shuffled off this mortal coil.
According to a statement by producer Tony Visconti, Bowie intended the album as a parting gift to fans, timing its release to coincide with his own death. Visconti’s farewell serves as the perfect epitaph to the chameleonic rock god whose every public gesture was a carefully crafted performance: “His death was no different from his life – a work of Art.” Makes you wonder what he’s going to do for an encore.
¹The term is thought to have been coined by a black musician to describe the way Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones co-opted the African-American musical tradition. (Lauren Smith, 2011)