It was announced on Sunday, online and via social media by his son. David Bowie had died peacefully after a private, 18 month battle with cancer, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his brilliant final studio album, Blackstar. The alien, the Man Who Fell To Earth, has fallen from the Earth. For pretty much anyone born after 1955 this was huge, bigger for us than the death of Elvis. As the Beatles showed us what it was possible for a band to achieve, so Bowie did for the solo artist. The horizon was boundless, the possibilities infinite.
It will be said everywhere, but Bowie was rock’s great (and original) chameleon. Constantly evolving and shape shifting, inhabiting a new character, staying one step ahead of the stagnation and madness that followed him, creating and discarding musical genres as he went. From his early Tony Newley-isms to the glam rock of Ziggy and Aladdin and then to the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans. The cocaine and occult fuelled dark insanity of Krautrock-influenced The Thin White Duke which in turn sent Bowie to Berlin for possibly his career high water mark, his stunning, experimental trilogy (plus work with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – oh, to be a fly on those walls!). By the time he recorded Scary Monsters he was at the forefront of the video revolution and inadvertently spawning New Romanticism. The disco grooves of Let’s Dance made him bigger than ever but trapped him in an image he resented. The 80’s and 90’s saw him struggle to stay relevant (although the brilliant, underrated Outside was influenced by, and in turn influenced Trent Reznor).
And then came the heart attack (during 2004’s Reality tour). He appeared to go into a mysterious, self-imposed exile. Speculation and rumour abounded but remained unanswered. Was he living in fear or living on his own terms? Had he become rocks answer to Howard Hughes? And then suddenly, out of the blue, Bowie reappeared. Still no interviews or performances but we were gifted with two superb final albums – the nostalgic, backward looking The Next Day and the experimental, forward looking Blackstar (yes, it is forward looking; we just didn’t realise that he wasn’t looking very far forward). They will now be regarded as his farewell letters – powerful, provocative and, for an artist known for his uber-cool emotional detachment, profoundly moving. As producer Tony Visconti said, Bowie had turned his death into a work of art. Ever the manipulator. Perfect.
And let’s not forget the guitarists. From the peerless Mick Ronson onwards, he always had a virtuoso six-stringer to hand. Be it Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Reeves Gabrels or the young Stevie Ray Vaughan!
It feels very odd, learning to live in a Bowie-less world. His fearless, questing creativity was an inspiration for all who followed in his wake, although however avant garde, however outré he got, he never forgot the importance of wrapping it all up in a killer pop song. He was the first artist to speak to the outsider, the freak, and to make them feel cool. Music, art, acting, fashion, sexuality – he influenced them all. One word keeps reappearing when talking about this man: Artist.
RIP David Bowie.