Monday, January 18, 2016

Remembering David Bowie

My favorite picture of David Bowie, from the sleeve of the Absolute Beginners single.

A note from the Wingman: Why would we do a celebrity obituary on this blog? Because David Bowie was an icon, the sort of creative and artistic genius we all wish we could be, and the sort of dapper gentleman of style and cool that we should all strive to emulate.

Like most of the world, I awoke last Monday morning and received the terrible news, and received it in the blunt, impersonal way most of us did: a notification on my cell phone that came in while I slept. And like the rest of the world, I had to open up a couple of news apps to confirm that it wasn’t a hoax or a false report.  

Sadly, the news was true. David Bowie had passed away just days after his 69th birthday, finally succumbing after 18 months to the aggressive cancer none of us knew he had.

Now, admittedly, I wasn’t a huge Bowie fanboy. I wasn’t a disciple of his myriad incarnations throughout the decades. I never owned a Bowie album, never saw him in concert, and had only really seen a couple of his films. But David had always been a presence throughout my life. There had never been a time in my memory that there was no David Bowie. I was born in 1969, just a few weeks before the moon landing. Bowie recorded his first #1 single, Space Oddity, on the 20th of June (3 weeks after my arrival) and released it on July 11th. So yes, Bowie was always a celebrity my entire life on this rock.

Although I really liked “Under Pressure”, his 1981 collaboration with Queen, I only really started to pay attention to any of his music when Let’s Dance came out in 1983. I quickly tired of the title track and the equally inescapable China Girl, but Modern Love was a pop masterpiece to me. Plus, there was something very cool about this dude with the immaculate suit and perfect hair. I never completely warmed to Blue Jean and thought that the Dancin’ in the Streets cover with Mick Jagger was abysmal, mostly because Jagger’s aging rock-god histrionic flailing dance moves couldn’t be taken seriously by a 16-year-old me who was deeply entrenched in the synth-driven world of Depeche Mode and New Order. However, in 1986 I found out that Dave Gahan, singer of Depeche Mode, was recruited to sing for the band when they formed based on his singing Bowie’s song Heroes. I decided to give this Bowie fellow some more consideration, and at about the same time he released the title track to a film he was in….Absolute Beginners. It became the one and only time I ever purchased a Bowie single. The song was lush and gorgeous and achingly beautiful. To this day it remains my favorite Bowie track, followed closely by the aforementioned Modern Love.

In the 90s, I was still clinging to electronic music and rebelling against the grunge movement. That said, Bowie still managed to catch my ear in 1995 with Hallo Spaceboy and its remix by synth legends Pet Shop Boys, and The Heart’s Filthy Lesson from the soundtrack of the movie Se7en, with remixes from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Dave Ogilvie from Skinny Puppy, and in 1997 with I’m Afraid of Americans also done with Nine Inch Nails. Just a couple years ago, I reconnected with the classic track Heroes when it was featured in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Ironically, I never cared that much for the cover of that same song by the band The Wallflowers. 

Always dapper and put together, and always with that huge smile. Taken just before his death.
While those may have been the last songs of his I truly paid attention to, I still maintained a deep respect and admiration for the man and his body of work. He never stopped working, always with some sort of project or another going on. Even while dying from the cancer that ended his life, he was putting an album together that was to be his final goodbye. Released on his 69th birthday, and just a couple days before he passed, Blackstar is being hailed as a masterpiece, hitting the charts at #1 and dethroning Adele after several weeks atop the charts. The album’s lead single, Lazarus, with its accompanying video, alludes to his impending demise. 

A very private man in his later years, no one outside his closest inner circle even knew he was sick. Even in his last publicly posted photographs, coincidentally also released on his birthday, he looks robust with that gigantic engaging smile of his and immaculately dapper as always. 

Bowie with Dave Gahan, circa 1997
 So, so very many acts that were influential in my life were influenced by David Bowie. Many are quoted here in a write up by the BBC.  As I said before, Dave Gahan’s rendition of Heroes got him the frontman gig for Depeche Mode. Not only did The Cure do a great cover of the Bowie classic Young Americans, former Bowie guitarist and collaborator Reeves Gabrels is now a touring member of The Cure. Bowie and Smith performed together live in 1997 for a Bowie anniversary concert. Smith has been quoted as saying:

Bowie's Low is the greatest record ever made. I bought it on cassette and the same day I went to a garden centre with my mum. I’d ordered it from the local record shop, and Paul, who was in the band, and is my brother-in-law, had dropped it through the letterbox. It’s like one of those weird days. I walked home from school, there was the cassette and we had a cassette player in the car. I went with her to a garden centre, and I listened to 'Low' while she went and did whatever mums do in garden centres, and I was like utterly, my whole perception of sound was changed. Just how something could sound completely different, like 'Breaking Glass', everything on there in fact, 'Sound And Vision', everything on there, everything I heard was astonishing, really astonishing. When I put it on now the sound, dunk dunk, everything is just fucking genius! There are other albums that I love much more, like viscerally much more, like 'Axis: Bold As Love', or 'Five Leaves Left', albums that I can cry to, but 'Low' was the album that had a huge impact on me, just how I saw sound. No other album has done that to me.

Robert Smith and David Bowie

You grunge fans will remember Nirvana covering The Man Who Sold The World on their famous MTV Unplugged episode. While I was never a fan of Nirvana or grunge as a genre, it’s not a bad cover. On their 360° Tour, U2 would play Space Oddity before the show to get the crowd going. U2 frontman Bono has been quoted s saying, “What Elvis meant to America, Bowie meant to Britain and Ireland. He was a radical shift on U2’s consciousness.”

Bowie and Bono
After hearing of Bowie’s death, Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore said:

David Bowie - Where does one start? Is it too obvious to state that he was the most influential artist for people of our generation and younger? Ziggy Stardust was the first album I owned and his ability to innovate meant that I was waiting patiently for the release of Blackstar just a few days ago.

I have heard Bowie blasting from Mr. Gahan’s dressing room way too many times to begin to count. Heroes was the first song that we ever played as the original Depeche Mode. We were all much more than casual fans.

He is the only artist who compelled us to rush to a record store on day one of a release back in the days of vinyl and beyond. His music is what grabbed us but he was so much more than just a musician.

To follow Bowie, to be one of his fans, was to be led on a magical, winding journey. He constantly pushed boundaries and introduced us to styles and genres we were unaware of or didn’t exist before he invented them.

He was a star - the star of stars. For us, he was the greatest legend. A legend who never rested on his laurels but continued to experiment up until his death.

We, along with the rest of the world, mourn the loss of our greatest talent. This will be a hard one to recover from.
Bowie and Martin Gore

 Many of my friends were/are much more die hard in their Bowie fandom than I ever was and took his death much harder than I. 

Pollyanna Denison had this to say:

Once upon another life, in 1997, through a set of circumstances in which the stars aligned, my guardian angels pulled all their favors, and luck was a lady to me, I wound up front row, standing against the stage, at a David Bowie concert. One which had been sold out for ages, and to which I had no tickets 3 hours prior. Soon after the show began, the Man himself reached out to me, grasped my hand, and held it in his warm, amazing, and magical palm; pantomiming that it was I who would not let go. He held my blessed hand so tightly that he pulled the ring off of my finger. He then smiled at me, held up my ring for the entire screaming audience to see, and walked the stage, proudly displaying it and laughing with his many admirers before he placed it back on my finger. He gave me the most charismatic wink I have ever received. Were it not for what seemed like a million people pressed against me, holding me upright on non-existent knees, I would have surely fallen, both lifeless and more alive than I had ever been, in that moment. To David, wherever he may be, I say this: Goodnight sweet prince. My heart will never be the same knowing you have left us, but is at the same time curious and hopeful for your soul's new journey. God speed.

And also sharing a close moment with David was Chris Huddleston:

To have held your hand in mine, even for that briefest of moments a lifetime ago, for just a handshake. To have shared a single moment, brief as it look directly into those sparkling eyes and be met with that dazzling smile, meant just for me...for only a moment...a flicker in time. It is all I had but it is enough to hold me for a lifetime.
To have been here, in this life, to have crossed your path. To have watched the showman, the artist, sharing yourself and your art so many times. To have lived a life molded by your presence. That is a gift for which I can never repay you. These tears are real and they are full of both joy and sorrow, as is the life you helped me to live.

Your brilliance and beauty are unrivaled in my world. Thank you, from the deepest recesses of my soul.
p.s. Your catalog takes on a new meaning today. Listening, yet again, with new ears and eyes full of tears...
Billboard outside Knoxville, Tennesee
Billboard outside Los Angeles
Singer, songwriter, actor, playwright, fashion icon, multi-instrumental musician, producer, author, painter, husband, and father. Indeed, the stars look very different today. 

In Memoriam: David Robert Jones, 8 January 1947 to 10 January 2016.

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