Sharing a Sound and Vision
Don’t remember David Bowie as a “chameleon.” Remember him as a sympathetic and generous artist.
Iggy Pop covers a song David Bowie has yet to release.
When I was in high school, “Quicksand” was my favorite Dinosaur Jr. song until I learned it was a cover of David Bowie. And I first adored “Wild is the Wind” from Station to Station as a David Bowie song, only realizing later it was a cover of Nina Simone.
Who else could make Nina Simone and J Mascis seem like peas in a pod?
The word “reinvention” is often used to describe David Bowie, but that’s insufficient. He didn’t just abandon one character for another. That implies that there was nothing consistent in him, no Bowie-ness. But reinvention didn’t define David Bowie. It was his mutability.
Bowie could take on any form. He didn’t just incorporate influences: he melded with other artists to create something singular and novel. As you can see in the Simone-Mascis connection, Bowie’s music could sound natural in anyone’s voice, and he could sound natural singing anyone else. Remember Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby? It made no sense at all, and then it made all the sense in the world. And Bowie melded not just with people, but with places. He shaped the identities of several of the West’s greatest cities: London, New York, Berlin. He even changed our perception of the furthest reaches of outer space and the landscapes of science fiction.
It is in Bowie’s mutability that we see his courage as an artist and a lesson for our own creative selves. You can be a great artist and go through an artistic evolution that makes sense, that is intuitive or even predictable, that illustrates that old saw, “growth of the artist.” But Bowie had the courage to forsake the obvious “next step.” And his artistic courage went beyond even that willingness to fall on his face and disappoint his fans. His next steps often involved muzzling some of his own vision in order to incorporate someone else’s.
That’s what I’ll treasure most from David Bowie: that rare ability to be artistically generous while maintaining a legacy so powerfully and uniquely his own. Bowie was willing to share an entire era (the “Berlin Trilogy”) with another artist, Brian Eno. Listen to Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets and then listen to Bowie’s “Heroes.” Where does one end and the other begin? And few artists are associated so closely for so long with one producer—in Bowie’s case, the great Tony Visconti.
Bowie was not afraid to explicitly acknowledge his influences and antagonists, even the contemporary ones. Witness the way he sang in an embarrassingly direct manner to Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan on Hunky Dory (and name-checked the Velvet Underground on the back cover. Look at “Quicksand,” with its slobbery, schoolboyish nods to Nietzsche (“I’m…just a mortal with the potential of a Superman”) and Tibetan Buddhism (“You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo”), and the direct references to Aleister Crowley, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill, and Greta Garbo.
I believe the greatest example of Bowie’s mutability and sympathetic vision came in 1977 with the release of his album Low and Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot. Both were recorded during the same period in the same studio, and Bowie produced The Idiot. To me, the two separate albums comprise one artistic statement, and I picture the artist behind that statement as some grotesque, decadent amalgamation of David Bowie and Iggy Pop stumbling around Berlin. The sound and the feeling are continuous through both albums. In fact, on The Idiot, Iggy Pop sang Bowie’s “China Girl” six years before Bowie would release it himself. (Bowie, in his infinite mutability, created a version on 1983’s Let’s Dance that sounds nothing like Iggy Pop’s menacing performance.)
In the months before he died, David Bowie mutated once again. Instead of getting jazzy with rock musicians, on his new album Blackstar, he brought in jazz musicians to rock. On Blackstar is a song called “Lazarus,” from the play of the same name that Bowie helped put on in New York this year. (The script for Lazarus, according to New Yorker reviewer Hilton Als, was inspired by the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, which starred Bowie as a human-looking alien.)
We thought Bowie was making a comeback, and suddenly he’s gone. Blackstar came out two days before Bowie died. He wasn’t falling to Earth—he was leaving it. The idea of “Lazarus” as Bowie’s final persona is a cruel tease. It seems like something Bowie would do: to become Lazarus just as he’s dying, to make his death just another phase in a career of reincarnations, to engage our suspension of disbelief so that we feel that we have the ability to will our artistic superman back to Earth.
Perhaps that’s why my first reaction to the news of his death was not tears, but puzzlement. It feels not like a death but like a mutation. He was Ziggy. He was the Thin White Duke. Of course he’s Lazarus when the end comes. And that’s what will make the grieving so hard. We have more than David Bowie to mourn. We must mourn Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, Eno-Bowie, Iggy-Bowie, and all the other David Bowies there ever were.
The day David Bowie died, I saw a rainbow over my house. The next morning, before I heard the news, I happened to wake up with “Oh, You Pretty Things” stuck in my head. Now that I know he’s gone, the image and the earworm are lingering. The perfect time, perhaps, for me-Bowie to write a song.
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