Among the many appreciations and celebrations likely published about David Bowie in coming days, readers will learn about his standing as a style icon, a groundbreaking avatar of sexual fluidity and a shape-shifting artist who expanded the possibilities in rock ‘n' roll performance.
But Bowie the icon is nothing without Bowie the songwriter. Yes, in public, he played with image and identity in ways that will continue to influence generations. Nestled within these visual creations, though, rests the reason for his enduring fame: the music, and his skill as a lyrical storyteller.
“The dressing of a show is just a dressing. It’s a sort of perfunctory kind of thing,” Bowie told interviewer Russell Harty in 1975, a few years after Bowie had become a superstar as Ziggy Stardust. “But the content has to stand. I mean, you can dress a show with a trillion dollars – or trillion pounds – worth of goodies, but if the show is not substantial, there will be no impact.”
Pressed further, Bowie replied, “I know what songs I’m going to sing, which is the most important thing.”
Listen to his breakout hit, “Space Oddity,” and the sensation of travel to the outer limits remains sublimely cosmic. The work’s first lines, a countdown to blast-off, could be the opening lyrics of Bowie’s chapter one, his “Call me Ishmael.” It’s 1969. We’re going on a trip to the moon, and soon Our Hero will be floating in space.
The arc of his musical life ascended along with that rocket. Once aloft, Bowie transmitted universal songs about star men who communicated via FM radio waves, about humans longing to explore, and getting lost in the process. He penned works about isolation, self-reflection, the rush of enthusiasm that comes with new life and being “strung out in Heaven’s high, hitting an all time low.” As the years went on and his body gave way, he frequently addressed death and decay.
That essence, that uniquely Bowie-ian way with lyric and melody, wasn’t something that could be commoditized or compromised. But somehow these oblique songs hit on an international scale. “Ashes to Ashes” is about addiction and existential dread: “The shrieking of nothing is killing me” isn’t a line you’d expect near the top of the charts, yet there it was.
Many children of the 1990s first heard Bowie through Nirvana when the band performed “The Man Who Sold the World” on MTV Unplugged. When sung by a gravelly Kurt Cobain, himself struggling with addiction, the version felt like a portent. Conjuring a mysterious interaction in a stairway, Bowie’s words echoed with new meaning: “I thought you died alone, a long long time ago.”
Those odd turns of phrases, the way he snatched bits of strange dialogue and turned them into foundations, are what defined Bowie the lyricist. Every line acted as its own portal. Each was its own chapter in an ongoing saga. But they were sturdy enough to withstand reinvention.
Consider a scene from Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” where Brazilian musician Seu Jorge serves as Greek chorus while covering Bowie’s songs. Stripped of Bowie’s glamour, his style and everything but a man singing about life on Mars and the importance of turning “to face the strange,” the simply rendered songs remain unsinkable.
Throughout his career, Bowie never professed to be an intellectual or begged for a podium. He was reluctant in front of a microphone when he wasn’t performing. But he did have a singular passion.
“Do I worship anything? Life. I very much love life,” he told Harty in a 1973 interview.
Four decades later he suggested another passion during one of his final songs, from “Blackstar.”
“I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,” he sang during “Lazarus.” It’s a song about being untethered, drifting away, of being lost but having nothing left to lose. It’s not hard to hear the voice of Major Tom when Bowie sings, “I’m so high it makes my brain whirl - dropped my cellphone down below.”
LISTENING TO DAVID BOWIE: A CRITIC’S TOUR OF HIS MUSICAL CHANGES
David Bowie made pop of impassioned critical distance. He told a good musical story by standing outside of it and knew how to make you think about the artist’s relation to his work and the listener’s relation to the artist; he took the question of image and identity seriously. (The first song he recorded under his stage name, released in 1966, was called “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.”) In a certain way, all his songs were metafictions, even when they seemed personal, even when they were hits. Here is a handful of the best and most widely loved.
‘Space Oddity’ (1969)
A short story arranged as expansive, filmic folk-rock, produced by Tony Visconti – and the beginning of the narrative of Major Tom, the abstracted astronaut. Bowie played Major Tom in a short promotional film for the song in 1969. If it wasn’t his first presentation of an embodied fictional character in a song – don’t forget “The Laughing Gnome,” from 1967 – it was the first one that took, and he revived it later, particularly in “Ashes to Ashes.”
‘The Man Who Sold the World’ (1970)
The title track of a harder, moodier, strummier record and the first of Bowie’s many collaborations with the guitarist Mick Ronson. (“Our last record was based on folk rock, and within a year we were playing heavy metal, almost,” Visconti wrote last year, in the notes to the Bowie box set “Five Years 1969-1973” about the making of the album.) Nirvana covered the song for its “MTV Unplugged” performance in 1993, leading to a new interest in the album.
From the album “Hunky Dory,” an even mixture of a cabaret ballad and a chugging pop song, with strings and a saxophone coda, ruminating on the only constant: “turn and face the strange,” he urged. The song became shorthand for interpreting Bowie’s fluid artistic persona and his androgyny; in 1976, he called his first popular compilation album “Changesonebowie.”
‘Life on Mars?’ (1971)
In which “the girl with the mousy hair” goes to the movies, looking for something better than everyday life and experiences excitement and boredom, almost at the same time. Also from “Hunky Dory,” it’s told with surreal imagery, from multiple points of view, but as a human-condition song that implicates everybody, in one way or another.
‘Ziggy Stardust’ (1972)
Another story-song and a step beyond “Space Oddity” in that it became a full-fledged character, an alien rock star bringing urgent news to the world in the final countdown. (“It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources,” he said in 1974, talking to William S. Burroughs about the story line.) In its hard, guitar-driven flamboyance, it was the apotheosis of glam-rock; Bowie toured the music for a year and then brought it to an end with a concert at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, in which he retired the character. “Having created the illusion of the superman,” the philosopher Simon Critchley wrote in his 2014 book “Bowie,” “he then popped it like a balloon.”
‘Aladdin Sane’ (1973)
The album “Aladdin Sane” didn’t exactly invent another character but advanced a feeling of dread, divided self and impending chaos. All that came through in the music, too, one of many times that Bowie seemed to be moving decisively away from the musical language of rock. It’s a 5-minute song that starts to crack after two minutes, with the pianist Mike Garson’s free improvising pushing it to the end.
‘Rebel Rebel’ (1974)
And back to straightforward, tough music again, in the vein of earlier songs like “Suffragette City,” with pointedly androgynous lyrics. The opening guitar riff – written by Bowie – is one of rock’s surest.
‘Station to Station’ (1976)
Bowie had finished acting in Nicolas Roeg’s film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and was writing a fractured autobiography, never published, called “The Return of the Thin White Duke.” That alter ego became his next character for “Station to Station,” influenced by American funk (he had passed through what he called his “plastic soul” phase), pop and German progressive rock. True to Bowie’s continuing theme of fragmentation, the 10-minute title track, with references to kabbalah and cocaine, is two different songs in one; its edited version for a 7-inch single, released only in France, used only the up-tempo second half.
‘Sound and Vision’ (1977)
From “Low,” the first of three albums made after he temporarily relocated to Berlin, much of it somber and severe, out of tune with the crude joyousness of English punk – it appeared three months after the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” – though widely influential in post-punk. But the record’s first single was different: bright and funky, a song about waiting for inspiration to strike.
The title of the album “Heroes,” and every song on it, came in quotation marks. It was a typical Bowie act of distancing, but even in its lyrical uncertainty (“nothing will keep us together”), the title track – written with Brian Eno, produced by Visconti – implies a grand and defiant statement, heroism as such.
From “Scary Monsters,” a more pop-oriented and self-assured album than the three that came before it, but still full of queasiness and dystopia. The song was marked by Robert Fripp’s overdriven guitar and a popular video alternating between nightclub, street and suburban surrealism; the lyrics mocked fashion – “it’s big and it’s bland/full of tension and fear” – even as Bowie himself became a reliable generator of its trends.
‘Let’s Dance’ (1983)
With the producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers, Bowie made a buoyant pop record – though some of it still a bit odd by commercial standards, including the title track, with Bowie in crooner mode and a long Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo over whomping early ‘80s pop drums.
‘Little Wonder’ (1997)
No surprise that in the late 1990s Bowie would pick up on jungle, the ruling English dance music of the time. In a 6-minute track, he mixed it with heavy-gauge guitars that evoked punk, if not Britpop.
‘Heathen (The Rays)’ (2002)
The title track from “Heathen,” a post-9/11 record, establishes a mood that would persist into the rest of his work: a self-questioning sadness, a preoccupation with time and death. “Waiting for something,” he sang. “Is there no reason?/Have I stared too long?”
’Where Are We Now?’ (2013)
A surprise release on Bowie’s 66th birthday, the first single from the album “The Next Day,” with a narrator as “a man lost in time” and “just walking the dead.” Slow and measured and minimal, it was less simple than it seemed.
Bowie’s final record pulled on threads of jazz and funk he’d been putting in his music for more than 40 years; the loose song structures and multipartite tracks resulted in one of his most original records in decades.
New York Times
DAVID BOWIE, MASTER OF THE MUSIC VIDEO
Among many other things, David Bowie was a pioneer and maestro of the music video: From the start of his career, he understood the possibilities of a fledgling format, the ways in which music and image could conspire to tell a richer, more complicated story. Whether in a narrative or purely expressionist mode, he brought acute visual poetry to the screen, helping to transform the music video from an afterthought – a flat promotional tool – into its own challenging (and ever-changing) artistic medium.
So while the Internet is awash with Bowie’s vibrant performance footage – don’t miss his triumph at Live Aid in 1985 and a version of “Young Americans” taped for “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1974 – there’s a specific contribution he made to the music video, on its own terms. Here are five notable examples:
‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ (1972)
Taped during an afternoon rehearsal at the Rainbow Theater in London, this low-budget promotional video, directed by Mick Rock, was an important prototype for the medium. Bowie and the Spiders from Mars perform against a black backdrop, intercut with writhing dancers; the song’s gay subtext was provocative enough at the time to prevent the video from being broadcast on the BBC show “Top of the Pops.” Lester Bangs later declared this clip “the very moment the modern idea of a video was born.”
‘Life on Mars?’ (1973)
Another early clip directed by Mick Rock, and the essence of simplicity: This time the backdrop is white, and the focus is on Bowie alone, in his Ziggy Stardust persona, wearing his turquoise Freddie Burretti suit. Shot either full frame or in extreme close-up that accentuated the icy eye shadow around his famously mismatched eyes, Bowie is an otherworldly figure here, but also an intimate one, bringing the song’s epic dimensions down to human (or humanesque) scale.
‘Ashes to Ashes’ (1980)
For his sequel to “Space Oddity,” Bowie made what was, at that point, the most expensive music video ever. But its production cost (about $500,000 then) might be the least intriguing thing about “Ashes to Ashes,” directed by David Mallet. It features Bowie dressed as Pierrot, making self-references to his own image, in settings ranging from a padded room to a rocky shore (often shot in striking solarized color). He’s accompanied at times by Steve Strange and other figures in the emerging New Romantic movement, which he helped inspire.
‘Let’s Dance’ (1983)
Bowie decided to film the video for this No. 1 hit in the Australian outback, setting much of the action in the bar of the Carinda Hotel, in New South Wales. He also chose to make it a comment on the struggle of Australia’s indigenous people, and the racism he’d witnessed there. The video has had a powerful afterlife: Fans still make pilgrimages to the hotel, in the town of Carinda, and a new documentary short film, “Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under,” is expected out next month.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” are the first words Bowie sings here. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” He’s lying in a hospital bed, viewed from above, his eyes obscured by bandages. “Lazarus” – a track from his final album, “Blackstar,” and also the title of his new theatrical musical – lyrically concerns itself with mortality, and the video, released a few days before his death, deepens that resonance. But the sickbed scenes form just part of the picture: Bowie is also shown, pen in hand, at a writing table, engaged in the act of creation.
New York Times
HOW DAVID BOWIE CHANGED WALL STREET
David Bowie was known for his ability to reinvent himself. But he also helped inspire a pocket of Wall Street that tries to create money out of weird things like billboard rental income, cellphone tower lease payments and literary or film libraries.
In 1997, Bowie bundled up nearly 300 of his existing recordings and copyrights into a $55 million security that paid the buyer – Prudential Insurance Co. of America – a 7.9 percent annual rate over 10 years, backed by the income from his royalties and record sales, and the licensing of his songs for films or other uses.
The so-called Bowie bonds were among the first in what would become a wave of esoteric asset-backed securities deals based on intellectual property, including a more recent one involving Miramax’s film library (including titles like “Pulp Fiction” and “The English Patient”). Bankers have also come up with securities backed by franchise revenue for the restaurant chains Sonic and Church’s Chicken, among others.
New York Times
DAVID BOWIE’S POP CULTURE INFLUENCE, IN EIGHT STEPS
As we mourn the loss of David Bowie, what keeps coming to mind is the huge impact he had on our times, anticipating and, often, helping to shape its twists and turns through the past few decades. “He always got to the unknown first,” the theater critic Hilton Als wrote in the New Yorker on Monday.
Here are eight ways Bowie influenced popular culture:
1. As a gender bender
At a time when homosexuality was still, mostly, illegal, Bowie publicly embraced the idea of a fluid sexuality. As he came to public prominence in the 1970s, he’d wear dresses on stage, proclaim himself gay, flirt openly with guitarist Mick Ronson in a legendary British TV performance of the song “Starman.” All of it helped pave the way for a culture that became ever more accepting of non-traditional sex roles.
2. As a genre bender
Not only did Bowie make music in an astonishing range of styles, but he made compelling music in all of them. His catalog includes everything from singer-songwriter gems (“Changes,” “Life on Mars”) to grinding, guitar-led rock (“Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel”) to soul (“Young Americans”) to funk (“Fame”) to post-Cold War anthems (“Heroes,” “Station to Station”). And when he needed to make hits, he turned out “Let’s Dance” and helped shape the sound of the 1980s. “To me it seems so intentional and so well done that I don’t think the word ‘poser' fits,” said Michael Darling, chief curator of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the only U.S. home for the “David Bowie Is” museum show. “It’s so strategic and smart in a way that is very Warholian.”
3. As a crossover artist
Before settling into rock ‘n' roll, Bowie tried his hand at, among other things, mime. And he would keep experimenting, playing a convincing space alien in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and the title character in the Broadway play “The Elephant Man.” He wasn’t the first to move from popular music into film and theater, of course, but he was one of the most effective, even as he said he lacked the discipline to do more than dabble in acting. “It really kind of connects up to bigger ideas about a signature style and how that’s maybe an old fashioned notion,” Darling said. “This idea of multiple personalities, multiple ways of perception, really is one of the most defining radical aspects of late 20th century culture.”
4. As a performance artist
There was always an aspect to Bowie’s art that was beyond the music, from the theatricality of his costumes and the stage sets he designed to the way he tried on and shed personas. To see this in action, look up the clip of Bowie on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979. There are the songs, yes, stellar versions of “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “TVC15,” but there are also the remarkable performances, including cabaret artist Klaus Nomi as a backup singer, a pink toy poodle with an embedded TV screen, and Bowie in a giant puppet costume and another that necessitated him being lifted into place on the stage.
5. As a music video pioneer
Before there was even an outlet for them, Bowie was seeing that short films were made of his songs. MTV began life by playing the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and that works, lyrically, but the better choice might have been, say, Bowie’s film of his first hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity.” “From the very beginning he pushed it and took advantage of it in a way other artists didn’t,” Darling said.
6. As a fashion icon
He was more striking-looking than handsome, but Bowie’s angularity, in facial structure and wire-thin body, helped him wear clothes well. And did he ever do so, taking stages in a cotton-candy-colored jumpsuit or in the iconic, wide-legged jumpsuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto, Bowie’s partner in one of the 1970s most potent designer-model collaborations.
7. As an archivist
The “David Bowie Is” show smashed attendance records, drawing 193,000 visitors in just under four months to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014. (The show is now in Groninger, the Netherlands.) Beyond a compelling life story and great integration of music into the museum experience, what made that show work was that Bowie kept just about everything, from a cocaine spoon that was part of his mid-1970s drug troubles to apartment keys from the Berlin years later that decade that helped him find solid ground again. It included the letter in which David Jones formally takes the name David Bowie, as well as costume after outrageous costume. It brought to mind, I wrote at the time of the MCA show, “the hippest lost episode of ‘Hoarders’ you could ever experience.”
8. As a planner of his own death
People were puzzling out the meaning of the album Bowie released Friday, “Blackstar,” on his 69th birthday (a birthday he shares with Elvis Presley, by the way). But looking at the video now for its first song, “Lazarus,” is a haunting experience, and one last coup by the master showman. He’s on a hospital bed with bandages around his face and buttons for eyes; he’s writing frenetically; he’s singing “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”