I woke up this morning to see the sad news that David Bowie had passed away yesterday after an 18-month long bout with cancer. It hit me hard – along with the rest of the world, it seems. From what I’m reading in my social media feeds today, David Bowie appears to have been nearly universally beloved among my music loving friends. And although we are collectively mourning the loss of this artist that meant so much to so many of us, it has been heartening to see how we’re also celebrating his lifetime of musical gifts that touched our lives. (You can read more about Bowie’s life and music, and listen to and watch some performances, at the links below.)
David Bowie came into my life in the late 70s (when I was about 12 or 13 years old) through FM radio first, of course, and then through listening to his albums on a friend’s turntable and then as part of my own record collection. I had heard his hits on the radio in southern California but didn’t own any of his albums and didn’t know his music beyond those songs. I remember sitting there listening to Young Americans for the first time in 1976 or 1977 and being caught up in the lush and soulful sounds coming through the speakers. It’s a great album, and it’s probably good that I started with that one. After listening to Young Americans, I heard some of his earlier albums – Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – and became a fan. Those albums had their edgy moments and opened up my ears to other performers like Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and King Crimson. His various personae did seem strange to me – a young, fairly straight-laced, middle class kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of southern California, but I suppose that was part of the fascination with him. Here was someone constantly testing the boundaries and pushing against the norm. I was intrigued by that. Bowie’s albums of the later 70s, the famed “Berlin Trilogy” – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – were something else again. Those albums took me out of my comfort zone, but I later listened to them intently. I think my affinity for Bowie’s music led directly to my becoming a huge fan of the Talking Heads around 1980. (The fact that Brian Eno had a hand in each of their sounds was certainly a factor as well.) As New Wave swept through my musical world in the early 80s, Bowie put out several excellent albums and accompanying music videos that solidified his reputation for the MTV generation of listeners, too.
I had a late night radio show in the late 80s, and at first it was a mix of classic rock and newer rock, but it evolved into mostly modern rock over time. When I started to think of what constituted “modern rock,” the mid 1970s music of Bowie gave me my somewhat blurry definition. It’s still a distinction I use to this day. Bowie and some others around that time changed rock and roll forever. I’m grateful to have experienced that.
What also made me a fan of Bowie was the fact that he wasn’t just a brilliant songwriter and accomplished musician, but he was also a music producer, painter, actor and more. He did a little bit of everything, it seems, and he stayed artistically expressive throughout his whole career. I always admired that in him. My wife, who is a few years younger than I am, fondly remembers his iconic role as Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth, as do many people of a certain age.
I didn’t listen to Bowie’s new music as much in the 90s and early 2000s and it appeared he went into musical retirement after 2003. But he surprised us all when he released the critically acclaimed album The Next Day in 2013. The album had been recorded in strict secrecy and even the record company’s PR department only learned of it days before its release to the public.
And then Bowie released Blackstar just last week, on January 8, 2016 – his 69th birthday. I had been hearing a lot of buzz around this album, and rightly so. It’s really good. Go listen to it. Blackstar features a couple of very fine jazz musicians that I’m familiar with, Donny McCaslin on horns and Mark Guiliana on drums, among others, and his longtime cohort Tony Visconti once again co-produced the album with Bowie. It should come as no surprise that one of the songs on the album, “Lazarus,” opens with the now haunting lyrics, “Look up here, I’m in heaven…” It was not widely known that Bowie had been battling cancer for the past 18 months, so it was a bit of a shock to wake up this morning – three days after the release of his latest album, to learn that he had died. But how else would you expect someone who lived such an artful life to leave it? Bowie planned it this way, knowing he was dying. Visconti said this today in a statement on his Facebook page,
“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”
Thank you, David Bowie for your music and art. Now I think I’ll go listen to some of more of your music…as I have been for nearly 40 years.
OBITUARIES – you can find much more information following the links found on these obituary pages.
Watch the the official video of “Lazarus” from the album Blackstar – released the same day as the album: Jan. 8, 2016. Bowie’s last hurrah…
New York Times review of Blackstar and how Bowie came to use jazz musician Donny McCaslin’s band for the recording.
Listen to Bowie’s Fresh Air radio interview with Terry Gross from 2003