Tonight, there’s a new Starman in the sky. I woke up very early this morning to the BBC informing me that David Bowie had passed away, just a few days after his 69th birthday and the release of his album Black Star. Needless to say it was a shock; he’d been ill with cancer for 18 months but very few people outside his immediate family and friends seemed to know about it. It was obviously the way he wanted things to be, and it’s a mark of the extraordinary man that he was.
Born David Jones in London, he studied art, music and design at school, and became interested in acting early on. In fact, he performed as an actor before he made a breakthrough as a musician. His musical career spanned over 50 years and in that time he moved through a staggering number of musical styles. I knew him best from the days of Hunky Dory and the Ziggy Stardust period, when he moved from that super-androgynous figure from the album cover to one of the creators of glam rock.
For me, the masterpiece from this album and still my favourite Bowie track ever is Life on Mars. It has puzzling, bizarre words, but the thing that grabbed me were the arresting harmonies. Bowie had a strange but very distinctive voice – you couldn’t ever say that he had the awesome pipes of some of the rock frontmen, but he had a large range and his vocal tone was instantly recognisable; after all, that is what will make a musician stand out from all the others.
(video from AllTheLoveGoneBlack’s YouTube uploads)
As Ziggy, he admitted later to being completely taken over by the character and used to give interviews in his stage persona. After Ziggy came the Thin White Duke and an altogether more disturbing image. But Bowie moved on, from style to style, through glam to funk, pop, dance and experimental music in the “Berlin” period that wouldn’t have been out of place with some of the avant-garde classical music of that time.
He rode the changes of the New Wave and moved into more straightforward pop music. In 1981 the Queenies will know well that a chance encounter led to Under Pressure, a number one hit and that amazing video which cut together explosions, silent movies and newsreel clips of the Wall Street Crash
(Video from TVC15’s YouTube uploads)
He also experimented with electronic music, releasing five albums between 1992 and 1999. His musical output dropped just after the start of the 21st century when he took an extended period off following heart surgery. Almost out of the blue, he released an album in 2013 and then a mere two days before his death, BlackStar appeared with its dark and arresting themes, none more so than the shockingly beautiful Lazarus, his final goodbye.
(Video from DavidBowieVEVO uploads)
And Bowie wasn’t “just” a singer. He collaborated with many other musicians, including that Christmas hit version of Little Drummer Boy with Bing Crosby, probably one of his most surprising offerings. He was also a songwriter, played several instruments, an arranger and producer. He had a substantial acting career, appearing in more than twenty films. He’s probably best known for The Man Who Fell To Earth and Labyrinth, but he also played the role of Pontius Pilate as The Last Temptation of Christ. His talents didn’t stop there; he was an accomplished painter and also collected post-modern and impressionist art.
He won awards for music and acting, and even one for being “Best Dressed Man”, but turned down a CBE and a knighthood. from the British government, stating “It’s not what I spent my life working for.”
David Bowie was an innovator, a ground-breaker. He pushed the boundaries of music, dramatisation, gender and sexuality. He was unique and we will probably never see his like again.
The stars look very different today.