David Bowie, Elusive Until The End

Photo by JImmy King

My initial thought upon hearing of David Bowie’s death was “How did he do that?” As in, how, in this day and age of intense media scrutiny and social media ubiquity did he manage to keep the secret of his illness for eighteen months so that he could shuffle off with his dignity intact?

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Then again, “How did he do that?” is a question that I, and clearly many others based on the outpouring of emotion unleashed all over the media and internet today, asked many times throughout his career. How did he manage to make what were essentially singer-songwriter albums in the early ’70s sound so unusual and otherworldly? How, when other artists of his generation were tripping over the disco era at the end of the decade and releasing music that today sounds sadly dated, did he record three albums which would seem forward-looking even if they were released tomorrow? How, in the early ’80s as so many of his classic rock brethren stumbled through the MTV airwaves like clumsy dinosaurs, did he dance away to number one with such effortless grace?

I’ve always thought that Bowie’s career decline from the mid-80’s on came because the music scene had become too fragmented; how can you “push their backs against the grain”, as he stated in one of the songs from his recently-released swan song Blackstar, if the grain just keeps giving way and revealing infinite wastelands behind it? His occasional releases from that point on had their moments, but the standard set by his incredible run of about fifteen years of brilliance just wouldn’t capitulate and cease towering so that the newer music could get a fair shake.

Like so many of my other favorite artists did, albeit with less whiplash gusto and fearlessness, Bowie refused to settle into any kind of rut for too long, pushing his audiences into new musical territories even if they weren’t ready to make the move. That Blackstar, with its uncompromising lyrics and restless soundscapes, continued that trend makes it a fitting farewell.

Like many of you, I will be pulling out the old albums, digging up forgotten tracks on YouTube and Spotify (there’s a link to “Absolute Beginners” below as an example), and even finding clips of some of his fun late-period acting appearances (as the ultimate fashion arbiter in Zoolander, taking the piss out of Ricky Gervais in Extras, exuding irresistible strangeness as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige.) There will be a lot of memorial articles that will concentrate heavily on the different personas and identities that he inhabited throughout his career; to me, these are fun ephemera attached to a music catalog that’s second to none.

Ultimately David Bowie was too elusive for tributes and such; the guy put a lot of effort into obscuring his true self, and he won that game by a rout in the end. My groping words in this post only prove this point. Best to keep it simple, as his record company did in an e-mail they sent out to journalists this morning: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of David Bowie. It was an honor and a privilege to release his music to the world.” It’s an ongoing honor and privilege to hear it as well.

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