David Bowie: A Star Has Gone Out

Jan 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: Appreciations, Essays

I’ve been struggling all week to write about David Bowie’s death. He was a bright star in my personal constellation of rock and pop stars (sadly, the rumor that a lightning bolt constellation was named after Bowie turns out to be a false wish upon a star), a Blackstar, in light of the title of his final album released just days before his death.

I find it kind of sad that Blackstar is the first of Bowie’s albums ever to rise to #1, not only because so many of his earlier records deserved the same heights, but especially because he did not live to see it do so. His previous album, The Next Day, seemed like a career summary, looking back at his earlier works, from the art design to the music. However, Bowie was exploring a new jazzy sound on Blackstar. It is so fitting that the ever restless artist was moving forward as he passed on.

David Bowie made me restless, too.  As much as I love most of his music, I am most thankful that he taught me to always be open and listen for new sounds, both in his music and others’.*

I once took a class called “Popular Music and American Society.” For my final project, I traced the roots of the various ch-ch-ch-changes Bowie’s music had gone through up to that point. I explored The Velvet Underground (which quickly became my favorite band), The Stooges and others that contrived the artifices of Bowie’s glam period, the blue-eyed soul and the True Sound of Philadelphia soul that became the music of Young Americans, along with Brian Eno and the Krautrock that so influenced the recently released Low, which would become the first in his “Berlin trilogy.” This was my first exposure to many of Bowie’s precursors (luckily I was working at WMUC so I had access to these albums, many of which were out of print at the time). This was an ear-opening experience for a “rocker” like myself.

Prior to Low, I was at best a mild fan of Bowie’s. I appreciated his rockier songs like “Rebel Rebel” and “Suffragette City” — “wham, bam, thank you ma’am!” — but his theatrical persona/presentation went against the more “authentic” ‘HFs rock sound of Little Feat and Bruce Springsteen** I embraced at the time. But something about Low intrigued me.

Listening more intensely to Bowie’s earlier catalog for the project also began to break down genre boundaries for me, teaching me it was okay for a rocker to enjoy theatrical glam, soul, even the dreaded disco. It made me as restless as he obviously was in his musical taste, one ear open to arty/edgy music, the other to the latest pop. I also began to realize that my vaunted “authenticity” was just a construct, that though they employed two very different approaches, Springsteen and Bowie were both “putting on shows,” and there was nothing wrong, indeed quite a bit right, with that.

The night after I heard Bowie had died, I found myself watching Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine again. Although the names have been changed, and some of the history fudged, the story of Brian Slade is clearly based on Bowie during his glam period, with Slade’s Maxwell Demon flouncing in as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (with Ziggy’s Spiders from Mars renamed The Venus in Furs after a Velvet Underground song).

There is not a single Bowie song in the movie (though the title comes from a Bowie b-side***), but it still seemed a fitting elegy for my lost idol, since the whole story revolves around reporter Arthur Stuart revisiting the idol of his youth on the 20th anniversary of his exit from the public stage. One of the most striking aspects of Haynes’s film (as with most of his films) is the color palette. All of the colors are so vivid in the glam memories, but everything is so drab and gray in the real world after the light has faded.

A star has gone out.

* Not just music, either. Lately, I have been filling in my gaps on Bowie’s “Top 100 Must Read Books.” And I am still amused by Bowie’s participation in the Nat Tate Art Hoax.

** Bowie recorded Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” in 1973, years before Manfred Mann’s Earth Band recorded “Blinded by the Night.”

** There is plenty of music by many of his peers, though, including Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Slade, T-Rex, Steve Harley.

This appreciation originally appeared at https://societeanonymeinc.wordpress.com/

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