In the week since David Bowie’s death, there has been an outpouring of grief from people all over the world, as well as an avalanche of essays (including this one) from people vainly attempting to attach themselves to his greatness. All of this is understandable. Bowie was a musician, actor, artist and fashion icon. Whenever anyone dies, there is a sense of lost opportunities. The greater the person, the greater the sense of loss.I never considered myself a Bowie fan, in particular, but I did have a great deal of admiration for both the man and his work.
I’ve also had this bizarre (and perhaps undeserved) feeling of closeness and propriety toward him because I live two blocks from his New York apartment.
On the day after his death, I passed his apartment and there were news vans and a crowd of people outside. I was filled with a sense of both loss and disgust. I was tempted to take a picture, but I decided that that would make me as intrusive as the news vans and crowds, so I didn’t.
As the days passed, I found myself mentally going over his music and my experience of it.
Since I was only an adolescent in the ’70s, I feel like I missed out on a good deal of Bowie’s output. Bowie may have had his avant-garde side, but he was also a hit-maker, capable of creating hits on AM radio. I distinctly recall the first time I heard “Space Oddity,” which was released around the time of the Apollo moon landing. I immediately liked it.
“Changes,” “Fame” and “Young Americans” also made it onto AM radio. In fact, he had enough hit records to release a greatest hits album, ChangesOneBowie, in 1976.
But I missed his whole Ziggy Stardust period and, listening to songs from that period now, I can’t understand why those songs weren’t also hit records. To my ears, “Life on Mars” and “Starman” are every bit as commercial-sounding as “Space Oddity,” “Changes” or “Fame.”
But you have to remember the era in which those songs were created.
It’s hard to imagine now how revolutionary Bowie was when he first came onto the music scene. (There’s an excellent documentary called David Bowie: Five Years which makes it abundantly clear.)
America was emerging from the singer-songwriter period of James Taylor, Carol King and Elton John (whose later songs/image were undoubtedly influenced by Bowie) and entering the era of California rock.
That’s what was so great about the ’70s: disco and punk were happening at the same time. (Take note, Vinyl writers!) CBGB and Studio 54 existed at the same time (and Bowie probably went to both). The American airwaves were filled with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, while in England the glam-rock of Bowie and T-Rex were segueing into the punk of the Sex Pistols.
This is the era in which Bowie created Ziggy Stardust and the later albums of his Berlin period.
It wasn’t until I got into college that my tastes and Bowie’s musical output merged with the release of Scary Monsters. This was also, to my ears, a very commercial-sounding album. “Ashes to Ashes” picked up the story and otherworldly sound of “Space Oddity.” “Fashion” had a funky bass line like “Fame.” What was not to like?
But the album that sent Bowie into the stratosphere was Let’s Dance. This album also coincided with the birth of MTV and Bowie’s videos from this album were in constant rotation. One of the biggest regrets of my life was not seeing the “Serious Moonlight” tour (which was featured in the video for “Modern Love”).
Bowie then entered a period where, as he himself has said, he was writing more for the audience than himself. Tonight and Never Let Me Down continued his commercial trajectory (and I did catch his “Glass Spider” tour, but it was anti-climactic).
But then, the following year, after playing large arenas, he played a small club in the East Village called The World with a band named Tin Machine!
Several more albums followed, but Bowie stopped touring in 2004 and maintained a low profile thereafter.
So, it was a kind of a shock to have, in the space of a few days, Bowie release a well-reviewed new album on his birthday and then die seemingly all of a sudden.
In truth, Bowie had already narrowly escaped death at least once or twice before.
In the ’70s, during his heavy drug period, Bowie actually looked worse than he did shortly before his actual death. There’s a widely circulating photograph of Bowie with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Grammy Awards where he looks like a skeleton.
But his death still feels sudden, partly because he didn’t seem to be fully present even when he was alive.
There’s an excellent article in The New York Times1 which talks about the way Bowie was able to walk the streets of New York City unnoticed. I think this is because everyone in New York thinks they’re a celebrity—and they’re all too busy looking at their cell phones.
I only saw Bowie once, although I’ve seen his wife, Iman, several times.
It’s kind of a funny story, actually.
I was walking down Lafayette Street when I saw two white men (who I assumed to be gay), one of them wearing sunglasses, walking with a young black girl and I thought, “How nice! Those two gay white men adopted a little black girl!” It wasn’t until after I had passed them that I realized that the white man wearing sunglasses was David Bowie and the little black girl was probably his daughter.