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
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.)
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”).
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
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!
albums followed, but Bowie stopped touring in 2004 and maintained a low profile
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.
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.