Few rock performers were so many things to so many different audiences as David Bowie. To many, he was the face of early ‘70s glam-rock and the sexually androgynous imagery that fueled it. But as the decade progressed, Bowie shed images, looks and musical styles with stunning frequency. There was the Thin White Duke that drove the dark rails of one of his finest records, Station to Station (released 40 years ago this month), the pioneering Krautrock stylist, the post disco soul man, blonde popster, industrial rocker, techno banshee and more. At his best, he was combinations of all those personas. And when he put one or more of them onstage, the magic burst forth.
I admit to being stunned when word of Bowie’s death at age 69 spread Monday morning. News reports said he had battled cancer for the last 18 months, but given the reclusive lifestyle he maintained over the past decade, who was to know? How fitting, perhaps, that one of rock’s most outrageously visible artists would spend his final years living a predominantly quiet and undisturbed life in New York.
By wicked coincidence, I spent late Sunday afternoon writing a review of Bowie’s new Blackstar album which was released Friday, the singer’s 69th birthday. It’s a beautifully strange work ideal for winter listening and his second record since retreating from public scrutiny. He had his hands in numerous other projects, including the Off-Broadway production of Lazarus (the title tune of which is one of Blackstar’s prime cuts) and retained a decades-long love for making music videos (he fashioned a wondrously abstract nine minute clip for Blackstar’s title song). But there was no touring and no interaction with any press in recent years. Bowie let his final work roar on its own merits.
Many wonderful memories exist of his music. Bowie played Rupp Arena one time as part of 1987’s Glass Spider Tour. It was a completely over-the-top production promoting one of his weaker albums (Never Let Me Down). But it didn’t matter. It was my first time seeing an artist I had grown up listening to. Sure, the choreography and overall staging embraced kitsch, but there was also the guitar duo of Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar, along with Bowie in fine voice, to ignite tunes popular and obscure, including Loving the Alien, Fashion, Scary Monsters and Fame. In typical Bowie splendor, the show ended with the singer sprouting wings atop the massive stage for his Aladdin Sane gem Time.
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His best album? The answer could be as fleeting as what day it is or what mood you’re in. The 1977 Berlin epics Low and Heroes are pretty much unmatched. So was the aforementioned Station to Station, the early Brit pop classic Hunky Dory and the 1978 live set Stage, which featured Kentucky native Adrian Belew on guitar.
I have a huge soft spot for Bowie’s later albums, as well, especially 2002’s Heathen and its incandescent title song, as well as the new Blackstar. But what dominates all these works, along with the entirety of Bowie’s astonishing career, is his unending fearlessness. Bowie took on the kinds of changes in image and style that would destroy most careers as a manner of common practice. But the consistency was always the quality of his work. Whether acting out as a squeamish pop crooner, a glammed up celebrity or a darkly progressive journeyman, Bowie was a rocker of the ages. His loss is huge, but the path of inspiration he paved is considerably greater.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com