“HE ALWAYS DID what he wanted to do,” longtime collaborator Tony Visconti wrote early this morning (January 11, 2016) after David Bowie’s passing was announced via an official statement. “His death was no different from his life – a work of art.”
For Bowie, life and art blurred in an endlessly creative space, and very few rock musicians have inhabited their work in such a complete and uninhibited way. Following in the footsteps of Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Beethoven, he was in a lineage of truly immersed, artistic souls. In other ways he was also the first of a new breed.
A rock’n’roll originator, he was also a mass media manipulator. An artist capable of creating works at once so deeply personal only he could truly fathom their full meaning, yet also an accessible, resonating presence who became a hero and inspiration to millions. He was the biggest, most accessible, wilfully experimental artist who ever lived.
Born David Jones in Brixton on January 8, 1947, the youngster was perfectly placed to feed off the two most progressive forces of 20th Century music – rock’n’roll and jazz – and he did not look back.
Initially inspired by early Elvis Presley and Little Richard 45s his father brought home, he experimented with skiffle before his step-brother introduced him to the music being created by John Coltrane and his contemporaries, which in turn led the young Jones to the saxophone.
In the ’60s, he settled on rock’n’roll, though his initial attempts to break onto the London scene proved frustrating at first – as did the confusion between his own name and that of The Monkees’ Davy Jones – and David Bowie’s (the surname adopted from 19th-century American frontiersman Jim Bowie) self-titled 1967 debut album was something of a non-event.
With success and a new record deal eluding him, Bowie was not to follow up with another release for two years, but he did not waste his time. Instead, his thoughts turned towards image and presentation in a serious and ultimately original way.
Despite Space Oddity, a still-extraordinary UK Number 1 single brilliantly timed for the July 1969 moon landing, a second attempt at a self-titled album (re-released in 1972 as Space Oddity) also failed to launch Bowie commercially. But the scope, individuality and artistry found in its grooves pointed somewhere new. Subsequent albums – The Man Who Sold The World (produced by Tony Visconti) and Hunky Dory (abetted by Ken Scott) – built on its merits, mixing rock and folk, Burroughs and Broadway. Bowie was touching greatness and he knew it.
But it took an alien presence secure worldly stardom: Ziggy Stardust. Touring as the live manifestation of the central character of his 1972 quasi-concept album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie cemented and then transcended cult fandom, providing the spark for the glam rock boom. Producing Lou Reed’s solo album Transformer with Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson, and providing All The Young Dudes for Mott The Hoople’s hit the same year, Bowie was on fire, but with the subsequent Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs straining increasingly at glam’s leash the main man was not going to stay in one place for long.
Instead 1975’s Young Americans heralded the first of many successful sea changes for Bowie, as he couched his own ideas in the warm textures of funk and soul. A year later, the relentlessly intense Station To Station saw Bowie communing with another extraterrestrial explorer, becoming the Thin White Duke of the album’s title track, a version of Thomas Jerome Newton, the character the singer played in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth which was released the same year.
But increasing drug use and psychic dislocation – witnessed in the contemporary BBC documentary Cracked Actor – made it clear that more than just a musical change was needed. Bowie moved to Geneva before taking up residency in West Berlin, where he found respite from his addictions and a new lease of creativity inspired by the divided city’s fertile artistic scene.
His own Berlin triptych – Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and Lodger (1979) – created in collaboration with Visconti and Brian Eno, would have been vindication enough, as he incorporated a head-spinning array of new, local influences (Kraftwerk, Neu!) and Cold War-infused ideas. Yet in the same period he also revitalised Iggy Pop, helping to create his first pair of solo albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life.
Visconti and Robert Fripp, the King Crimson nabob who lent avant-guitar to the Berlin sessions, remained onboard for Bowie’s next project, adding a rock edge to 1980’s synthesiser-led Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) before Bowie confounded expectations yet again with 1983’s Let’s Dance.
Created with Chic’s disco whizkid, Nile Rodgers, it embraced pop wholeheartedly, catapulting its creator to a new level of global stardom, forging the blueprint for 1980s pop iconhood as he mounted ever bigger tours and starred in transatlantic benefit gig Live Aid.
Following his experiences as an actor in The Man Who Fell To Earth and onstage as the Elephant Man, film roles in Absolute Beginners and Jim Henson film Labyrinth followed, but celebrity served to distract him from music, and returns diminished with 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down (an “awful album”, in his own judgment).
Salvation of sorts came in the company of a band – Tin Machine, with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the Lust For Life rhythm section, Hunt and Tony Sales – with whom he recorded two albums before reverting to his own name, reuniting with Nile Rodgers for Black Tie White Noise in 1993. In the same year he also released a soundtrack of incidental music for the BBC series the The Buddha of Suburbia as he rediscovered his passion for experimentation. Outside’s creation of its own peculiar narrative world and the drum’n’bass blasting of Earthling probed new boundaries; he even innovated on the financial front, as “Bowie Bonds” allowed institutional investors to buy a slice of his future revenues. Just as doom for the traditional recording industry inched over the horizon – smart move.
At the start of the 21st Century, there was a return to more familiar, song-based territory on ‘Hours…’, Heathen and, ultimately, Reality – plus career-spanning, critically acclaimed festival sets at Glastonbury and the Isle Of Wight. Bowie was much in demand and much missed when he apparently “retired” after 2004’s Reality Tour, during which he required heart surgery following chest pains.
While rumours about the singer’s health would persist, Bowie would defy and confound watchers over the next decade, popping up in unlikely projects.
He featured on the soundtrack for Shrek 2, turned down a knighthood, judged a “walk-off” in the film Zoolander, provided backing vocals for records by Arcade Fire and Scarlett Johansson, pleaded for Scotland to remain part of Britain, ‘acted’ in the Spongebob Squarepants movie and made a scene-stealing appearance in Ricky Gervais’ comedy series Extras.
However, his most unexpected move was his own return in 2013, releasing The Next Day just when observers had given up hope of ever hearing new Bowie music. Heralded by single Where Are We Now? – a surprise release on his birthday in 2013 – the move seemed to indulge the singer’s wry wit, upstaging as it did a major V&A exhibition, for which he’d allowed curators unprecedented access to his archives.
Both album and exhibition proved major successes, demonstrating Bowie’s simultaneously-held positions of legendary icon and vital contemporary artist.
It was a balancing act Bowie effortlessly sustained, as he embarked on an extensive reissue campaign, including a series of collectable picture disc singles, while once again exciting fans and critics with the release of a 25th studio album, the enigmatically titled ★, which was released last Friday, his 69th birthday. With familiar unpredictability, it featured a set of brand new collaborators: jazz musicians plucked from New York’s vibrant club scene.
Bowie had kept his cancer from all but a few, but the album was intriguing and dark enough in its own right, qualifying as a major musical landmark even before news of the artist’s death in New York on January 10 2016 transformed it into his last testament.
It’s a fitting last move. Forget the Starman; having changed the life of his fans, shaped culture in his wake and inspired generations of musicians, it was David Bowie who blew our minds.