10 Thoughts on David Bowie

A color-enhanced image of David Bowie, exaggerating his heterochromia iridis, in 1973. This photo was taken in Paris during a photo shoot for Bowie's Pin Ups album. Photo: Justin de Villeneuve/Getty Images

1. It's always hard to write on deadline, of course, and it's possible that, if the New York Times didn't have a Bowie obituary ready, poor Jon Pareles was up all night writing one. But one of his editors should have made sure that the words gay or bisexual appeared in the piece that resulted. I'm sure David Bowie wasn't the first gay rocker, but he was the first male star to be open and matter-of-fact about the idea of sleeping with other men. He eventually got married, of course, to the formidable Angela Bowie, née Barnett*, but this part of his persona undoubtedly limited his appeal. One of the dirty little secrets of the 1960s was that sexism and homophobia were prevalent. Bowie forced the rock world to confront this part of the audience's life. It was not only brave, but done in such a matter-of-fact way that it carried no hint of apology or compromise. A few years later, Elton John acknowledged his bisexuality in Rolling Stone, and to some extent helped neutralize the issue in pop, though Freddie Mercury never got the memo. (To further make his career unlikely, Bowie also was "out" about his early career as a mime. The first time he met Warhol, he performed a deadly serious mime about removing his heart from his torso for the artist and his entourage.)

2. I think in the end, Bowie's greatest legacy will have been an extension of this: expanding the rock world — its music, its vocabulary, its worldview. Bowie was difficult. There were rock personae before — the love man, the seducer, the defiant crusader, etc. Bowie came up with more complex, three-dimensional characters, and set them up in a way that it was hard to tell how much he actually bought into them. Rock at the time was about authenticity; your characters were real. His, by contrast, were fungible, potentially ironic, and possibly being used merely to construct a pop moment, which could evaporate at any time.

This all put the relationship between fan and star out of balance and made it insecure. It was good for the art in the long run, but it made for difficulties in aesthetic interpretation at the time.

3. He was a bigger star in the U.K., a striking and acclaimed figure throughout the 1970s. In the U.S., not so much. The rock magazines of the time occasionally paid Bowie some respectful analysis, but he didn't sell records until the single "Fame," long after his most transgressive work. In my New York essay on Bowie from a few years ago, I noted that he'd never placed an album in the top ten of Pazz & Jop critics poll in The Village Voice, an amazing factoid. The poll solicited votes from virtually all the working pop writers of the time, and can be said to reveal a fairly definitive picture of the critical mood of the times. In fairness, I might have noticed that the poll took a year off the year Ziggy Stardust came out, but there was still little sign over the rest of the decade that the majority of critics of the time considered him a major artist.

He wasn't selling records either, until "Fame" and his "plastic soul" phase. Until then, his sexuality, his alien look, his eerie, mismatched eyes, intellectual unparsability, and polymorphously perverse subject matter occluded his appeal to much of a generation that would grow up to revere him.

4. His best works are a pretty consistent series of albums, from 1971 (Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars) through 1976 (Station to Station). Acolytes also go for the follow-ups, Low and Heroes, but these are overrated, though the track "Heroes" is a song for the ages. Something for everyone here, from coked-up drag queens ("Queen Bitch") to lovers ("Kooks") to kids on their own in a clockwork world of Nixonian morality and Me Generation blandness ("Young Americans," "Changes"). Also, just because it often gets overlooked, note that Bowie's cover of "Sorrow," from Pin Ups, transformed a mopey piece of twangy schlock into a dance mash-up (cha-chas, rhumbas, strolls) and an emotional cataclysm, one of the great production works of the era.

5. I wish I could say that David Bowie wrote a major song after 1980, but he didn't. On the other hand, his last two works were lulling, occasionally compelling, and not-embarrassing meditations on life, art, and mortality. His last album, released just last week, is called Blackstar, and includes songs from Lazarus, a Broadway show taking off from his poignant performance in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth.  

The video for his last single, "Lazarus," shows the artist railing in what appears to be a hospital room, and writhing on what appears to be a deathbed. It might strike some as distressingly literal, but the frankness with which he has faced his later years, starting with "Where Are We Now," from The Next Day, is just another sign that this master artificer found no mask more compelling than reality's. 

6. David Live, a bruising account of the Diamond Dogs tour, is often overlooked. The sound is spectacular, and you can hear every twinge in his (coked up) persona. A spectacle from start to finish.

7. From Iggy Pop to Arcade Fire, Mott the Hoople to Lou Reed to Bruce Springsteen, Bowie followed and understood rock and, more importantly, rock artists, and helped many. This was a sometimes thankless endeavor. In 1979, six or seven years after Bowie architected Reed's solo career by producing, in spectacular fashion, the album Transformer, he was still trying to keep Reed's life together.

In the spring of that year, at a Chelsea restaurant in London, Bowie was speaking earnestly with Reed, in full view of a contingent of U.K. rock journos, including Melody Maker's Allan Jones:

Bowie has said something to Lou. Lou is not entirely enamoured of the comment. He fetches David a smart crack about the head; fists are flying. Most of them are Lou and they’re being aimed in violence at Bowie. David ducks, arms flying up above his head. Lou is on his feet, screaming furiously at Bowie, still lashing out.

“Don’t you EVER say that to me!” he bellows, hysterically, “Don’t you EVER fucking say that to ME!”

Order is eventually restored. Then:

The next thing I know, Lou is dragging Bowie across the table by the front of his shirt and fetching him a few more smart slaps across the face. The place explodes in chaos again. Whatever David said to precipitate the first frank exchange of conflicting opinions, he’s obviously repeated. The fool. Lou is beside himself with rage and rains slaps down upon Bowie’s head before anyone can drag him off.

“I told you NEVER to say that,” Lou screeches, fetching the hapless Bowie another backhander; another furry of blows follows in hot pursuit. Lou is batting David about the top of his head. David cowers. Lou looks like an irate father boxing the ears of a particularly recalcitrant child for pissing in his slippers. He gets in a few more whacks before the minders haul him away from Bowie. He will not calm down. He tussles and struggles, tries to launch himself again at Bowie.

The result was one of the great covers of the classic U.K. music-paper era.

8. I keep coming back to "Life on Mars?" a song from Hunky Dory. Bowie cared deeply about pop culture, and this orchestral cry of betrayal is definitive. Pop isn't working if it's not taking care of girls with mousy hair. This video was crafted by photographer Mick Rock:

9. "Rebel Rebel" got some airplay in the U.S., but it was not, contrary to popular belief, a hit single. In this clip, apparently from German TV, watch Bowie brandish his electric guitar and then, over the course of just a few minutes, deconstruct it, and in the end turn it into a pretty little plaything. This sort of thing wasn't necessarily profane to the rock lumpenproletariat of the time, not to mention the Eric Claptons. But it was, in a word, confusing, something much worse.

10. In a way, the legacy of Bowie's that's most valuable to me is item No. 3, above. The great artists of tomorrow are often staring us right in the face, and some times even the critics don't get it. It doesn't have to be, of course, but art is sometimes difficult. It can be discomfiting and challenging. And I don't mean the épater la bourgeoisie stuff promulgated by some of the supposedly daring artists of the day, though I don't want to mention any names ([cough] Kanye [cough]). It's not daring if it reinforces your preconceived beliefs and challenges those of someone else; it's a symptom of decadence to think so. Bowie's career reminds us that it's sometimes worthwhile to give something that makes us uncomfortable a second look — or listen.

* An earlier version of this story stated that David Bowie’s ex-wife’s maiden name was Bassett. We regret the error.