Saturday, March 19, 2016
David Bowie: All In
The Short Version
David Bowie dropped his best album in 35 years, and 72 hours later he was dead. Christ, what an exit.
The Long Version
There had been a kind of comeback in 2013, an album (The Next Day) that was more notable for appearing out of nowhere and for being Bowie’s first in a decade than for its music, which wasn’t necessarily better than what he’d been doing on the several albums before his semi-retirement. But it was good to have a Bowie album again, and a pretty good one.
It proved to be something of a dry run for something else—Blackstar, which used a similar strategy, from secret sessions to a birthday release date, but raised the stakes. It began with an advance release of the title song. Hey, a new David Bowie single, and it’s ten minutes long: in 2015 this was not anyone’s idea of promising. I only bothered because the music video was supposed to be very weird; the song itself was almost an afterthought. But I couldn't help noticing that, against all odds, the song was great. I’d call it his best since “Ashes to Ashes,” in 1980. By the time Bowie’s 69th birthday rolled around on January 8, I was driving around town trying to find a vinyl copy of Blackstar; I had to resort to buying one online, got a free rip of the album, and listened to it all weekend. Bowie had found his way back to a good album, back to relevance. Holy shit, as Marc Maron might put it—David fucking Bowie! It looked like Bowie was at long last going to match Dylan in something: he was going to pull off the the Unlikely Late-Career Resurgence. It is the toughest thing to do. I settled in for a long reacquaintance.
On Monday morning I woke up to a text from a friend: “Bowie’s gone. Jesus.” Gone where? I got up. My daughter was brushing her teeth. "Hey, Daddy—David Bowie died." Holding her smartphone up with one hand the way people in the old days probably waved a newspaper with a big headline. Mouthful of toothpaste.
Oh. Gone there you mean.
Bowie, David fucking Bowie, he had pulled the rug out. Like he was executing the perfect con, the old grifter had directed our attention one way when the action was actually somewhere else. This wasn’t a comeback story; it had been a farewell all along. In hindsight it seems obvious—the funereal cover art for his final album (particularly the all-black LP edition), the deathbed fantasies in his recent music videos, the valedictory quality of his new lyrics, the adoption of a Lazarus theme for both a new song and the retrospective theater piece he was developing. It was all happening in plain sight. Bowie's career had, in a way, been an act of performance art, and this exit was its stunning, un-toppable ending.
It even crossed my mind that Bowie was not dead, that he had slipped away into normal life and was watching the fallout of his vanishing act. This isn’t wishful thinking of the Elvis-sighting variety; it’s just a logical conclusion—how could Bowie possibly not be appreciating this somewhere? This elegantly engineered exit is the ultimate example of his conceptual mastery and all-in approach to his art.
That week felt a little dreamlike. I’m not sure people who didn’t experience it firsthand will ever be able to appreciate it. As a traumatic reversal of gears, it may not quite be on the level of Lincoln being killed only 48 hours after the surrender at Appomattox, but for a celebrity death it had a powerful dimension of unreality to it. I think this aspect of Bowie’s death will get a little lost over the years. You kind of had to be there.
Of course, the Facebook tributes cranked up. Music journalists not even born when Bowie had already jumped the shark weighed in on the career. You couldn’t buy even the most obscure Bowie album on Amazon; everything was sold out. (If that’s what it takes to move some units of The Buddha of Suburbia, so be it.) Bowie even had his first number one album in the States. And then, a few days later, Professor Snape died, and then the dude from Earth Wind & Fire, and then Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump heated back up after the holiday layoff, and, well, you know, the caravan moved on, as it must.
Once the smoke cleared, none of the tributes really captured what, if anything, was great about Bowie. Many insisted on the man's warmth and generosity, which came as a surprise to me—I'd always detected a somewhat standoffish character. Turns out it was pretty fun to hang with DB, though. You could cruise Cold War-era Berlin with him in his Mercedes and ram a drug dealer's car, or if you were washed-up rock star he might salvage your career for you.
From an entertainment perspective, it’s not complicated. Bowie’s a big deal because we all know “Changes” and “Rebel Rebel” and Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust, in the same way that we know “Born in the U.S.A.” or “Stairway to Heaven.” They’re rock chestnuts.
But Bowie had more than the required string of hits. He was at the center of not one but two major shifts in rock music. I don’t mean he was a witness, which would already be significant. I mean he was a mover: he played a big part in making them happen at all. His first contribution was to what would become punk. Where most people were building on the pop of the Beatles or the blues-based rock of the Stones, Bowie, having already gone through that phase, looked to artists like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. He found meaningful common ground among these barely-known bands and channeled it into his early rock, including the glam rock that was a clear precursor of the English branch of punk. Where most glam now seems brittle or arch, however, Bowie’s glam records have the grit and the connection to the culture of real rock’n’roll. (The fact that this era of his work also threw a bold, if sensationalistic, spotlight on gay culture just gives Bowie another notch in his cultural belt. This was brazen stuff in the early ’70s. Elton John, genuinely gay where Bowie was dabbling, sure didn’t dare to discuss homosexuality or bisexuality, much less implicate himself in it. This is not a knock on Elton John, by the way. He had a very different audience, and when he finally did come out, he entered a long period of being the rock’n’roll version of box-office poison.)
The other shift that Bowie helped to effect is harder to name. One is reluctant to call it new wave—a label that no self-respecting band would identify with—and it’s probably giving him too much credit to say he played anything more than a minor role in the rise of electronic music. But in the middle of the decade he ditched the vamping and the pentatonic scales of traditional rock and re-emerged with a defiantly experimental, where-the-hell-are-we-heading, firmly European sound that, if anything, predicted post-punk. For all its aloof qualities, this music was the most expressive of his career. The legacy does encompass countless new wave acts, who are impossible to imagine without the example of albums like Low and "Heroes," but it finds its purest descendants in artists like Joy Division (and its offshoot New Order), Public Image Ltd., and, farther down the road, U2 and the Cure and the Pixies and the Smiths and Nine Inch Nails and Bjork and Radiohead, even Madonna.
What an ear Bowie had! Who else in 1971 was even listening to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, much less basing a whole aesthetic on their work? Who else would have heard in the Krautrock of Neu! and Kraftwerk, and the ambient minimalism of Brian Eno, a way out of the dead end of the bloated ‘70s? The genius of the preceding wave of British rock artists was to adopt the foreign idiom of American blues, to see how black music could feed into European flash and formalism. It had quite the heyday, but it devolved into endless solos and soft-headedness. Bowie took rock another step, and did it without a scene, without comrades. He always looked outside—to the Die Brücke artists, Japanese theater, the Kabbala—and, of course, rock artists like Dylan (but he seized on Dylan’s mystique rather than his chord changes). The bedrock of his very European music was American soul; the musicians on his greatest albums were black Americans: that's a very Bowie contradiction. His genius lied in his unimpeachable instincts and his uncanny trust in himself.
When I fall hard for something like U2's “Miss Sarajevo” or Bjork's "Come to Me" or Portishead's "Sour Times," this is squarely in the tradition of Bowie’s particular brand of romanticism. There may be greater artists out there than Bowie, and even a few whom I personally like more, but the sound Bowie created over forty years ago, and then hammered away at for decades like a bluesman who has nowhere else to go, is my version of roots.