For half an hour on Monday morning, from 8:45 until 9:15 A.M. local time, it was unclear whether reports of David Bowie’s death were reliable or a hoax. Then, the painful, incomprehensible truth spread: he was dead.
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What a sharp transition. Over the weekend, we were still in thrall to the unique ability of Bowie to continue creating innovative, adventurous, experimental and daring music, where the heartbeat of the present could clearly be heard – and doing all this at an age (69) when leading artists are no longer supposed to or, unlike Bowie, are unable to be in the vanguard.
Well, the ink has not even dried on the critical reviews of his new album, “Blackstar” (some of which did not even have time to get published after the album, Bowie’s 25th, was released last Friday), and Bowie is no longer with us. The circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong, as he famously sang in “Space Oddity.”
His songs will remain with us for decades, if not longer, but his body succumbed to cancer. Until news of his death was confirmed, we didn’t even know he was battling it, as he worked on his final album. How did he make an album – specifically, an album such as this – while he was dying? (He was diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago.) It is unbelievable. And another question: To what extent did he know that the date of his death would be so close to the release of the final work during his lifetime?
The shock caused by this sudden transition – from a pulse beating to no pulse, from a frantic line to a flatline – was the first emotion to register following news about his death. But the image of Bowie that emerged in the moments that followed, when the shock began to subside, was a shape-shifting one that refused to accept the simple plot change from life to death, and insisted – as is normal with Bowie – to be portrayed on its own terms.
It was not one of his iconic characters from the 1970s – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and all the rest – but rather, the image of Bowie as he appears on his new album, and especially on the final two tracks, which probably were not the final sounds Bowie ever recorded, but are the tunes that complete his massive body of work.
A final reckoning
When we heard them over the weekend, it was impossible not to skip over a beat in the presence of the cloud of death that enveloped them. It was a very soft cloud, not a tragic one. They sounded like a litany of self, like a soundtrack of coming to terms with the end. These feelings were present when the album review was being written (two days ago!) and now, when Bowie is dead, we can process them. It even helps. The Bowie of these two songs, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” sounds and comes across as someone who is approaching death – or some experience that is not part of life’s existence – and does so soberly, with acceptance.
It sounds like a miniature requiem. “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me,” he sings in almost a whisper on “Dollar Days,” which also includes repetition of the lyrics “I’m trying to” and “I’m dying to.” In “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” meanwhile, he sings, “This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.” They are words of summary and departure, sung not only in a beautiful tone that combines control and loosening one’s grip, but are also enveloped in a shroud of great music.
“This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.” The coming days will spur an endless debate, monstrous in scope, about these questions. What was Bowie’s main intention, what was his message, what was its significance? He once said in an interview that all his songs dealt in one way or another with alienation, detachment and anxiety. Naturally, he knew what he was talking about, but it seems this was only one side of the monumental artistic equation. The other side, without which Bowie would have been just another great performer who sang plaintive songs about the dark side of human existence, was the one of liberation.
Independence was Bowie’s message, and an important part of his significance. It is doubtful there is another artist in all of pop history who caused so many people to rethink their identity, play with it, change it, step out from it and create another identity for themselves. Bowie was the great liberator of pop – and the remarkable thing is that he stepped onto the pop stage after the greatest revolution in its history had already taken place.
It is not that he landed in the era of social, intellectual and sexual conservatism. True, Bowie was already active in the late 1960s, but he was born in 1947, and was too young to be a key player in the musical and cultural earthquake of the ’60s. By the time he hit it big with “Space Oddity” in 1969, the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll revolution was in full force, perhaps even in its twilight.
But for all the mind-expanding revolutionism and counterculture of the Sixties, there were many areas that remained unliberated. Indeed, there were many possibilities that The Beatles and the Woodstock generation did not imagine – such as playing with one’s sexual identity. The Sixties revolution was a very heterosexual affair.
Another area concerned rethinking the very identity and essence of the artist. The Sixties revolution put front and center the image of the authentic artist who defies and rebels. Bowie, either consciously or simply because that’s what emerged from him, presented a completely different concept. The dosage of reality, estrangement and alienation in the English reality of the early 1970s was apparently so great that, in order to be liberated, it was no longer enough for a great and clear-minded artist to show the way. The way was ruined; alienation had corrupted everything. The only way to be free of this darkness was to metamorphose into an alien figure who would express everything that was both sick and despicable, as well as glittery and glamorous. It had to be beautiful yet terrifying, appealing yet daunting – but mostly appealing. It is incredible how appealing.
The first appearance of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust on British television in 1972 probably sent the greatest shock waves through a nation since Elvis Presley wriggled his hips almost 20 years earlier.
Bowie’s identity games, the spectacular weighting of theater and dance within his performance, his deep understanding that pop is not only sound but also image – without all these elements, it is impossible to understand the importance of the man. Actually, they are so fundamental to his work that they are liable to give the impression that they’re more important than the music. It is possible that if one examines Bowie as a cultural phenomenon, that is even correct. However, it is absolutely clear that if Bowie were not a great musician, in addition to all his traits as a monument of pop culture, he would have disappeared very quickly, no matter how attractive his image and how liberating his message.
He was a tremendous songwriter, and an even better performer. Similar to The Beatles in the 1960s, except on his own (with help from excellent partners, of course), Bowie reinvented himself nearly every year throughout the 1970s, and every self-invention created a new shock wave that reverberated throughout a huge cultural space.
Among Bowie’s generation, the icons of the 1960s and ’70s, there are many giants who still perform and release albums – but they are all yesterday’s people. They are retired superheroes, like artists in their 70s or 80s are supposed to be. Bowie, in contrast, was always a man of the present.