The Man We Are Lucky Fell To Earth: David Bowie, 1947-2016
For many, David Bowie was the ultimate pop culture icon: a man (or alien?) who was constantly morphing while absorbing his influences to deliver one unique package. Or perhaps more accurately, several unique packages.
Despite his many so-called personas, it's still impossible to pigeonhole Bowie into one field, one defined category. While a musician primarily, he immersed himself in other fields like film, while outwardly displaying his tastes in the visual arts such as paintings, fashion and even mimicry for a brief time in the late 60s. In an over five decade career in "showbiz," Bowie managed to get around to anything that was truly a passion of his, whether it was acting, singing or fashion. What did he really have left to tackle? Knowing Bowie, he would have found something. After all his recent studio album — and sadly his last — has him playing with an avant-garde jazz group.
Beyond just hair styles, clothing and music videos, Bowie borrowed from influences such the Velvet Underground's character studies into the decadent and debauched to create alter-egos such as "Ziggy Stardust," the "Cracked Actor," and the "Thin White Duke." The way he represented the outcasts, the so-called "freaks" endeared him to many who now see their lifestyles represented in the mainstream. His admission of bisexuality also made him an early pioneer for the LGBT community gaining mass acceptance.
When Bowie hit his true fame in 1972, looking androgynous was anything but mainstream. He helped make it seem normal for a male pop star to have dyed hair, woman's dresses or makeup on — all against the tenants of machismo or manliness that had come to define even the softest, most sensitive of crooners in music of years gone by.
While his singing voice echoed the greats of vocal pop or vaudeville, the looks he chose were anything but traditional (most of the time). But this was a star who in the early 70's was just as at home in a three-piece suit or tuxedo as in a dress or skin-tight leggings. He mainly drifted away from the gender-bending of his early years, but never totally abandoned an affinity for those considered "outsiders" merely for their fashion sense or sexual orientation.
There is always one period of his career that members of the public can claim to enjoy — even if they aren't a huge fan of his other periods — whether the Anthony Newley-esque vaudeville days before "Space Oddity," the pre-Ziggy hippie chic, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars, Plastic Soul/Thin White Duke, Berlin trilogy, 80's mainstream pop, 90's electronica or 00's neo-classicist Bowie.
For this author, the Plastic Soul and Berlin days were where Bowie proved he wasn't just a poseur, some rock n' roll opportunist, but rather a serious musical artist with damn good taste. Much the way Bob Dylan is often generalized as the folk music, protest singer of his youth, the media will always try to frame Bowie in his most famous guise, as the flame red-headed, androgynous alien "Ziggy." But his true fans know better.
There was always so much more to Bowie than met the eye. Always holding a knack for promoting his persona to the public yet still hiding his personal life impeccably well, Bowie excelled at keeping his battle with cancer a mystery to the bitter end. When he passed away Sunday, it was revealed he'd been battling the illness for the past 18 months.
All this information made his final studio album, Blackstar, all the more intriguing. Here was a work that Bowie knew was likely his last and it is one where clue-seekers will no doubt be combing the lyrics for meaning and references to his impending demise. Up until a week ago, it could have been perceived as just another experimental release from an artist that seemed somehow immortal. But given this new perspective, it can be interpreted as a personal artistic statement on his inevitable death — the final kiss-off from a very aware singer who was determined to leave his fans with a final gift. It's not unlike Freddie Mercury or Warren Zevon who tried to give one last hurrah while knowing they were dying. Blackstar dropped on his 69th birthday and just 2 days before his death. What a sendoff. And now, David Bowie truly is a starman waiting in the sky.