By Joseph MacPhee
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There is a popular saying among classic rock enthusiasts and climate change activists: We need to start worrying about what kind of world we are going to leave for Keith Richards.
Indeed, it seems like our rock and roll idols – Richards, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop, and Ozzy Osbourne, to name a few – manage to live on after countless years of drug use, alcoholism, and other work-related stresses (I hear being a rock god is a tough line of work). It is as if there is some threshold of substance abuse unbeknownst to us common folk, and to pass through without succumbing to the rigors of stardom means immortality. At least that was the old way of thinking.
December 2015 and January 2016 saw some of the worst casualties the rock industry has faced in a very long time. On December 3rd, the world lost Scott Weiland, former frontman of the Stone Temple Pilots, after overdosing on drugs in his band’s tour bus. Shortly thereafter, on December 28th, Lemmy Kilmister (of Motörhead fame) passed away after an extensive battle with cancer. January 18th of this year saw the passing of Glenn Frey, singer, songwriter, and founding member of the Eagles, due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis.
Another devastating report came on January 10th, when it was learned that David Robert Jones (more popularly known as David Bowie) passed away at the age of 69, after having also suffered a losing fight with cancer.
This news hit me hardest of all.
The Life of A Bowie Fan
My friend and I half-jokingly used to “worship at the Church of Bowie,” but with the legendary musician’s passing, it made me realize how much of an inspiration he truly was, and how many times he helped shape my musical aspirations over the years.
As the news of Bowie’s passing spread like wildfire, I listened to nothing but his recordings to and from work that entire week – an hour-long commute both ways – paying tribute to the musical genius I so greatly admired.
In my state of deep reminiscence, I recalled the excruciating effort I used to put into finding an original pressing of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on vinyl. In my mind, it was a feat not unlike climbing Mount Everest. After numerous repeated trips to the local record stores of Central Jersey and beyond, I began to give up hope. One day, I took a trip to Vintage Vinyl, a trusted spot in Fords, NJ, in a quest for an entirely different record.
There it was. Hanging on the wall, in the “mint condition” section, was an absolutely beautiful copy of Ziggy Stardust.
It called to me, demanding my money, which I willingly gave up all too easily. I made the purchase and the trip home as quickly as possible, stopping at nothing to put that record on the platter, turn on my machine, and hear those chilling opening drum beats of the first track, “Five Years.” To this day, it is still the best-sounding record I own. The back cover provides explicit instructions, in bold and capital letters: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.
I follow the instructions to the letter every time.
From Ziggy Stardust to Blackstar
The complexity of David Bowie’s career is such that it cannot simply be explained in one short article. How can I attempt to make sense of the mental processes behind such classic onstage Bowie personas as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke? One thing this man could never be at any point in his nearly 50-year-long stint as a performer and artist was content. Bowie could barely go more than one album without overhauling his sound completely.
Starting out as a young mod in South London in the late 1960s, Bowie quickly made the shift to glam rock pioneer in the opening years of the Seventies. His first breakthrough hit, “Space Oddity,” is a testament to that transitional period. The emergence of Bowie’s first alter ego, the mystic Ziggy Stardust, led to his most groundbreaking work, with albums like the aforementioned Ziggy Stardust in ’72, Aladdin Sane in ’73, and Diamond Dogs in ’74. Following another drastic transformation and a need to produce an entirely new sound, Bowie went off the deep end.
Out of a strict diet of peppers, milk, and cocaine, the Thin White Duke – Bowie’s next character – reared his ugly head. A string of albums in the second half of the Seventies (Station to Station, 1976; Low, 1977; “Heroes,” 1977; Lodger, 1979) were all very synthesizer-driven – still a very new concept at the time – and were greatly influenced by German electronic bands like Kraftwerk. Bowie was so heavily dependent on drugs at this time in his career that he later claimed he couldn’t remember nearly any of the production. After such a detrimental period, which would certainly have permanent effects on Bowie’s health going forward, it was time for another change.
The Eighties saw a reinvention for David, as he reached a level of superstardom with his wildly successful album, Let’s Dance, in 1983. Tracks like “Modern Love,” “Let’s Dance,” and “China Girl,” the last of which was co-written with Bowie’s longtime friend, Iggy Pop, helped catapult Let’s Dance to the top of nearly every popular chart at the time. It is still Bowie’s best-selling album to date.
Such newfound fame also led to some of Bowie’s greatest collaborative works: he co-wrote and sang on one of Queen’s greatest singles, “Under Pressure,” and he teamed up with Mick Jagger to record a version of the Martha and the Vandellas classic, “Dancing in the Street,” which also resulted in an instant-classic Eighties music video.
In yet another transitional period exiting the Eighties, Bowie teamed up with some relatively unknown musicians to start a grunge/hard rock band called Tin Machine, releasing two albums with the group in ’89 and ’91. Following that project, Bowie unleashed a slew of experimental solo albums throughout the Nineties, each one more experimental than the last.
Bowie would not put out another body of solo work for another ten years, after the release of his twenty-third studio album, Reality, in 2003. The musician suffered a heart attack backstage at a show in 2004, and he slowly began to phase himself out of the public eye.
David gained an aura of mysteriousness after his health scare, refusing to give any interviews with anyone. The mystique would continue for many years, up to and including Bowie’s surprise announcement on his sixty-sixth birthday that he would release his comeback album, The Next Day, after so many years of dormancy.
The very next year, Bowie was diagnosed with liver cancer, which he managed to keep a very closely-guarded secret. Just a month ago, another one of Bowie’s birthday announcements led to the release of his final studio album, Blackstar, on January 8th, just two days before the singer’s passing. The record is easily Bowie’s strangest body of work, containing the eerily prophetic track, “Lazarus,” and an equally artistically chilling music video.
This is the End
Throughout Bowie’s eclectic career, he was constantly socially active, always voicing an opinion for one cause or another. Ziggy Stardust, the sexually ambiguous “alien from another planet,” was heralded as a bastion of hope for the gay community, giving them a sense of belonging in a world where, back in the Seventies, being openly gay was still very much taboo. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Bowie was also a warrior for the anti-racism and anti-fascism movements. In a recently re-earthed interview with MTV in 1983, Bowie disapproved of the program’s lack of coverage of black musicians.
Such a diverse, outspoken, and often controversial figure undoubtedly drew support and admiration from countless fans and fellow musicians. As evidence of this fact, album sales of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, exploded after news of his death spread, posthumously earning him his first number one album on the Billboard 200 chart in the U.S. It displaced Adele’s 25, which had been in the number one spot for seven straight weeks.
David Bowie certainly lived hard, and he certainly lived fast. Years of heavy drug use, coupled with a vicious smoking habit – plus the heart attack in 2004 – added up to an irreversible state of damage. His cancer diagnosis in 2014 was the end of the line, yet the musician still managed to turn such devastating news into a work of art, channeling his all-too-real musings on the inevitability of death through Blackstar.
The end comes for us all, yet this legend will live on forever.
Bowie’s career was so incredibly diverse and expansive – 25 studio albums (plus several live albums, compilations, and collaborations), not to mention several acting credits on the stage, television, and film – that it is tremendously difficult to imagine someone who isn’t a fan of at least some aspect of his work and legacy.
The man was unbelievably dedicated to his craft, writing music right up until the end. He was even in talks with longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti to release a follow-up to this year’s Blackstar, but fate decided this was not to be. Nevertheless, the immense body of work he did leave behind will certainly continue to mesmerize longtime fans, and perhaps make new ones along the way.
David Bowie was a hero to many, a savior to others, a brilliant performer, an astonishing songwriter, and a fascinating human being the likes of which the world may never bear witness to again.
Rest easy, Starman.
Joseph MacPhee is a staff writer for The World At Large.