Thank You, David Bowie

A dying man was David Bowie's final incarnation, his final character, and like so many characters before it -- he played it perfectly.
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A dying man was David Bowie's final incarnation, his final character, and like so many characters before it -- he played it perfectly.
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My discovery of David Bowie was my discovery of rock-and-roll. I was eight-years-old, snooping around my teenage cousin's bedroom like the little asshole I was when I came across her record collection and began flipping through it. It would be years later, watching the same kind of scene unfold in Cameron Crowe's autobiographical Almost Famous, that I'd begin to take pride in what I believed was a rite of passage and feel sadness that with physical records vanishing new generations were going to be deprived of it. But at the time, there I was -- peeling back the layers of a life lived in the service of a teen girl's idol worship. The images on the record covers were intoxicating: the striking all-black with a slash of color dripping down the front of Steely Dan's Aja; the regality of Fleetwood Mac's Rumors; the undeniable suggestion of the Stones' Sticky Fingers; the mosaic of sketch-work on the Beatles' Revolver. It was, to quote the fab four, all too much.

I took it all in, every inch of every cover, pulling one out, examining it carefully, then replacing it and moving on to the next. Until I came to a smaller record wedged between the others -- a single, a 45 in a plain white sleeve with the center cut out of it. I slid it out and there it was: Bowie. Space Oddity. At that time, I was still high as a kite on all things Star Wars so anything that even hinted at being sci-fi I was willing to bite down on hard. I took it out of the sleeve, placed it on my cousin's cheap turntable and dropped the needle. What happened next was something bordering on magic. I had never heard anything like it. From the very first notes, from the staccato snare hits and the forlorn monotone of the vocals, what Bowie was creating wasn't so much a song as it was an experience. Sitting there in that small, empty room listening to Space Oddity, I began to feel like I was the one floating in space. Never before had I understood that music and lyrics could commit to each other with perfect synergy. The lyrics told you the story of Major Tom, but the music made you feel what he felt. It was a transcendent moment for me and it made me fall completely under Bowie's spell to the point where I began going back through his catalog and listening to anything I could get my hands on.

There are people out there right now -- people far more eloquent than myself -- who can explain at great length just what made David Bowie so special from a general perspective. He was an icon, a genius, a true artist, a musical and cultural chameleon who transformed himself so many times into so many completely unique incarnations that it was at times impossible to imagine that the alien traveler who recorded Ziggy Stardust was the Aryan superman who recorded Station To Station and was the suave gentleman who dominated the pop charts with Let's Dance. All of his various personalities were at once contrived and completely effortless and never, not for a second, did they come off as hackneyed or the work of someone forcing his art in the name of commerce. Bowie changed what it meant to be a rock star, to be a sex symbol, even to be a man in the public eye. He gave a voice and face to those who felt like outcasts and misfits, because Bowie was the ultimate misfit and he owned it completely. He seemed to be a master of every discipline he explored and never felt like a dilettante no matter how broadly he reached out in new directions. As an artist, he was always searching and therefore he was always surprising. Even his death came as a surprise. Even his death was transformed into the perfect piece of performance art.

These are the facts about Bowie -- and they simply cannot be disputed. So all that's left really is to come to terms with what he meant to each of us and what the impact of his loss will be. For me, I remember just a few years after that first exposure to Space Oddity -- after already having worked backward through Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and Young Americans -- seeing yet another incarnation of Bowie on the fledgling MTV. This time his look was French and German expressionist cabaret and his sound was spacey new wave and from that Scary Monsters record came Ashes To Ashes and Fashion. Again, I'd just never seen or heard anything like it. As the 80s progressed, he dropped the cold melancholy of his new romantic phase and reinvented himself as maybe his most startling character yet. After all the world had seen of Bowie -- the spaceman, the androgynous glam king, the Thin White Duke -- all of a sudden there he was making the catchiest of soul-influenced pop music with Let's Dance. There he was being, well, pretty normal. That was actually the point in his career I checked out of the most. He made some spectacular music but it didn't feel like he was pushing boundaries, particularly not in the years immediately post-Let's Dance. Tonight and Never Let Me Down were solid efforts, but with the exception of a few standout tracks they didn't feel like the avant-garde Bowie I'd grown to love.

Maybe Bowie himself saw it as a period that threatened creative stagnation, because he closed out the 80s by making a hard turn in a direction no one ever could've seen coming: he joined a band. Not a lot of people really highlight this point in Bowie's career, but Tin Machine -- the band he formed with Reeves Gabrels and Hunt and Tony Sales -- were nothing short of explosive. Tin Machine thundered with absolute punk ferocity, partially the result of recording 100% live in the studio with no overdubs. They'd make two full-length records before disbanding, but seeing Bowie up there as the frontman in a rock-n-roll band was something extraordinary and it's a phase of his career I still treasure to this day. The mid--to-late-90s brought with them collaborations with Trent Reznor and, consequently, a more industrial sound. Even though Bowie didn't invent the genre, he took to it on Outside and made it his as he always had before -- and the same can be said for his embrace of drum-and-bass on Earthling. The thing to keep in mind is that regardless of the impact of changing time and tastes, Bowie was always doing something intriguing. He was always creating art that was worth listening to and watching.

If you haven't listened to the material he released during his more introspective years -- since the turn of the millennium -- I can't recommend enough going back and poring over it. There are songs and ideas there that are as good as any of the tracks that are now considered part of our cultural DNA. And only Bowie could take his own impending death and secretly turn it into an album as resonant, mysterious and moving as Blackstar, which was released just days ago to near-universal acclaim. And this was before anyone knew what the album was meant to signify. What it was really saying. There's been quite a bit of talk already about how the second single from the album, Lazarus, was meant to quietly revisit his life and telegraph the terminal nature of his battle with cancer to all of us. But there's another song on Blackstar that I think deserves as much if not more attention: the album's closing track, I Can't Give Everything Away. It's a song that's both melancholy and sweeping, heartbreaking and enormously life-affirming. It's Bowie saying a final goodbye. It's his last song and he knows it. And it's a masterpiece -- the perfect track to end his breathtakingly abundant artistic life. A dying man was David Bowie's final incarnation, his final character, and like so many characters before it -- he played it perfectly.

All any of us can say at this point -- certainly all I can say to the man who opened my eyes in so many ways so long ago -- is thank you. Thank you, David. Rest now.