This one is taking me a while to process. David Bowie was always in the soundtrack for my life. He may not have been the number one artist but he was always there with me. In high school I remember seeing him on the Midnight Special in full Ziggy mode, the strangest look on the planet and rocking like hell. In college there was “Fame” or “Young Americans” booming over the PA in the student dining center and kids bobbing their heads while they ate. He appeared on Saturday Night Live in the late 70s, wearing outfits I can’t even begin to describe and playing music I could only just comprehend. In the 80s we were back living in this small town and even out in the boondocks the Let’s Dance album was everywhere. And so on.
We’re hearing a lot of talk in media about Bowie being pop music’s chameleon but as one reporter on NBC contended, a chameleon changes color to blend in. Bowie changed color, his image, his music, his stage persona, to stand out, to be ahead of the pack. Very few artists keep evolving like he did, ever changing, ever seeking out the next thing, never staying in one place too long. I can think of a few artists who routinely do this: Robert Fripp of King Crimson, Neil Young, post-Zeppelin Robert Plant, Patti Smith…yeah, the trail goes cold pretty quick.
I’m playing the title track to his new album right now. It’s jazz-inflected, the meter is all over the place, atmospheric as all hell, and still, utterly human. I suspect that if I read the lyrics to all the songs I’d find hints to his battle with cancer, facing death, seeking immortality. I might do that later. The thing to do now is to listen to and absorb the new music, to let it sink in. Bowie always takes a while to sink in.
It makes me smile to think how typical it was that he pulled this off. In the face of a terminal diagnosis, he crafts a final adventurous album, a couple of mind-blowing videos, and a stage play. All without revealing what was going on, what he was facing. Like his buddy Jagger, the private side of Bowie is rarely revealed. All you got was glimpses, asides, quotes and lyrics that were obtuse yet somehow revealing.
Remember the song he did with Queen, “Under Pressure”? There’s an entire Slate piece right now on how remarkable that song is. There are so many subtle aspects to what is essentially a four minute rock/pop song. It is truly a calculated and yet at the same time entirely heartfelt piece of music. And there’s David’s lyrics at the climax of the song.
Love’s such an old-fashioned word
and love dares you to care for
the people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way
Of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
This is from a man whose persona was often a cold remove, a mask from humanity, too otherworldly to care. This is a man who represented the misfits, the artsy kids who never fit in, the square pegs who resented the round holes, and asking us all to take a chance on these people, to care about everyone, to remember that we have just one dance and we better make it count. Now that’s a hero.