I was never that big of a David Bowie fan, I’ll admit it. He made twenty-nine solo albums, of which I own none. Instead I own a greatest hits collection (ChangesBowie) that I bought secondhand at Harvest Records last year. From that confession (or disclaimer, or both) draw whatever conclusion or dismissal you’d like. But I’d still like to spend a little bit of time writing about Bowie and my thoughts on him and the small amount that I did know about it.
I guess I came of age musically at a weird time, at least it feels weird in retrospect. I was sixteen in 1993, and the musical world was a bizarre place. Looking at his catalogue, Bowie seemed to be recovering from a strange period in the 1980s. He’d already retreated from his solo career by forming Tin Machine in the late eighties, and releasing Black Tie, White Noise, an album that served as a herald for more acclaimed music to come. I didn’t see that, instead I saw an old rock star, one that starred in that video with Mick Jagger, making music. Black Tie, White Noise disappeared among the flannel shirts, Converse All-Stars and guitar feedback that dominated my adolescence.
I wish that I could say that at some point I reconnected with David Bowie’s music and appreciated it, but I didn’t. Maybe it was his status as a “fashion icon” (I’ve even seen him referred to as since his death), or as the old rock star who it seemed like was in a mid-life crisis, or maybe it was him selling shares in himself that created a bad taste in my perpetually-thirsty-for-signs-of-integrity-mouth that did it. Whatever it was, I wasn’t buying what he was selling (mainly because Trent Reznor always seemed to be lurking).
I bought ChangesBowie last year because I finally came around to realize that Bowie had created a ton of music that I knew and appreciated. I bought the CD and enjoyed it, not enough to actually go out and explore any of Bowie’s work, but I still enjoyed it. I suppose on some level that places Bowie’s music on the same level as Journey or The Band to me – artists whose Greatest Hits albums I like, but not enough to go buy their other work. I’m pretty sure that makes me a bad person.
But Bowie isn’t just some rocker that I didn’t get. There are plenty of those out there and I wouldn’t just write about one of them when I should be working like I am doing now. Bowie was bigger than that. His music mattered too much to people whose thoughts and opinions that I value. His personas made me feel uneasy, grossed out, and angry at times. His way-too-chic demeanor bothered me, and every bit of his artistry that I knew about fascinated me.
Let’s start with the bad stuff: Bowie always seemed like way too much of a capitalist for my taste. There was a degree of calculation that I never liked and made me very leery. The closest comparison that I can make right now is Madonna. Bowie reminds me of Madonna. Yes, I’m aware that Bowie came first, but I’m more immediately familiar with Madonna’s career trajectory. His Ziggy Stardust persona, the weird authoritarian thing he did and even his soul man phase all remind me of Madge’s incarnations. From Bowie’s early attempts at fame (a publicity stunt) to his first big single being played as astronauts walked on the moon, it all struck me as a well-crafted hype. But as I’ve gotten older, there’s a beauty to the hype. It’s show business, and the fact that Bowie could somehow be the most show business guy in the room and still have an heir of prestige and integrity about him is a testament to his work and artistry.
That integrity is the fascinating thing about Bowie. How can a guy reek of show business and still have so much respect? Bruce Springsteen never appeared on television complaining about being harassed for having long hair, The Rolling Stones never appeared on the Dinah Shore Show, The Clash never did a Muppet Movie, and yet there was Bowie in the midst of all of these things. How he managed to do that without having the associated stink of small-time show business is amazing.
Another thing that I’m learning to love about Bowie is that his talent was malleable enough to work with collaborators and come out still identifiable. His talents walked that tightrope between keeping a rigid sound and character and still being malleable enough to absorb outside ideas. He seemed to unabashedly love The Velvet Underground, American R&B and Scott Walker. The point is that Bowie could hang with anyone and seemed to be able to create compelling music. That’s artistry, or at least that’s what I think artistry should be.
Now Bowie is gone. He left a lot of things in his wake. A lot of better writers and more adoring fans will undoubtedly share much more poignant tributes to his work, but I just wanted to take some time and share what a polarizing talent David Bowie was for me.
There’s plenty of great Bowie out there to share. Share it with your friends, with your partners and with your coworkers.