Authored by Dale Nickey:
Superheroes aren’t supposed to die…
David Bowie loved to surprise and shock people. Sadly, he saved his best for last as he passed on Sunday January 10, 2016 at the age of 69. No one saw it coming.
Everything he did in life was art. The way he looked, his elegant speech, videos, film, music…above all, the music. It makes sense that he would orchestrate his final exit to perfection and go out on top. And somehow, leave us smiling through the tears.
Born David Jones, Bowie entered the music business through the same portal as many other seminal British artists during the sixties; he attended art school and cultivated a passion for music. He paid his dues playing in R&B bands on the London club circuit. The Kingbees and The Manish Boys were among the more notable ensembles Bowie played in during that era.
His recording career was going nowhere in particular until he released the epic single “A Space Oddity” in 1969 (five days before the Apollo moon mission). It became a hit single in Britain (and later in the U.S.). Although “A Space Oddity”” didn’t catapult him to worldwide stardom at that time, its success earned him the opportunity to make more records until he found his stride.
In 1971 he released “Hunky Dory”, arguably the finest album of his career. It was a gigantic leap forward from his previous album, the spirited but scruffy “The Man Who Sold the World” where Bowie grabbed the attention of the press by shooting the album cover lounging on a chaise in a dress. “Hunky Dory” yielded the classic rock evergreen “Changes”. The rest of the album is a masterclass in songwriting; ranging from the acid folk of “Andy Warhol”, to the Punk Glam snarl of “Queen Bitch”, to the dour S & M imagery of “The Bewley Brothers”. There was no filler, only brilliance. But, how could he possibly top himself?
1972 saw the release of “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars”; an album that (in its own way) changed the world as much as Beatlemania. The Beatles only hinted at an androgynous parallel universe where the languages of art, love and lust were freely spoken. Now we had a painted, sequined poster boy who not only talked the talk, but came armed with classic tunes that could outlast the critics and the naysayers. Bowie made it OK for a man to wear makeup and look beautiful. Well, for a little while anyway.
“Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” comprise one of the most potent trilogies by any artist in the history of Rock Music. 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” was brilliant but something had changed. Bowie dumped his faithful backing band and was clearly eager to jump into the artistic void.
“Young Americans” used Philly soul to capture the ears of America. The album yielded Bowie’s first American chart topper “Fame” (co-written with John Lennon). With “Station to Station” Bowie entered a harrowing phase of drug abuse that saw him lose his memory and a significant portion of his body weight. Didn’t matter, Bowie was now an artist for the ages who couldn’t make an inconsequential album
Bowie had to rehab and reboot or snuff it. For Bowie, that meant taking his buddy Iggy Pop and moving to Berlin by The Wall. He did things like shop for his own food and wash his own laundry. The austere cold war environment inspired his second great trilogy of albums. “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”. Bowie brought Art-Rock heavyweight Brian Eno in to collaborate and help him explore his inner Stockhausen. Never had such a commercially potent artist taken such a radically uncommercial detour. Bowie was reinvigorated, his muse was overhauled and ready to meet the challenge of the 80’s.
Bowie was famous and successful. But, he had not yet achieved ubiquitous celebrity in America. That changed with “Let’s Dance”. It was a pure commercial dance record by design. Bowie brought in Chic hit maker Niles Rodgers as producer and introduced the world to an unknown guitar slinger by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Massive hit singles “China Girl”, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” pummeled the charts, radio and MTV. David Bowie owned the year of 1983.
Bowie would never scale those heights again. He still made good records. He also did some big tours and stayed ahead of the curve by selling shares in the David Bowie brand on the stock market. He also accurately predicted that streaming and file sharing would destroy the music business as we knew it. He did several films, live theater, raised a wonderful family and manfully followed Queen after their epic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.
People sometimes forget he was a good sax player. He did all the horn parts on his early albums. He was a one take wonder. Super producer Ken Scott rated him as the best studio singer he ever worked with. There were no bum takes on a David Bowie session. He wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople; and who can ever forget his duet with Freddie Mercury, “Under Pressure”?
He was also a heavy smoker. He packed up in later years, but who knows what damage had been done. He died of cancer far too soon. However, he remained trim, youthful and dapper to the very end. He died a dignified and peaceful death surrounded by family. Listen to his music and be amazed by the wonder of it all.