David Bowie’s death on Sunday in New York transmitted the rarest of shocks, its announcement rudely waking those of us in the UK, disrupting sleep patterns across the US, and disorienting admirers the world over. After suffering a heart attack midway through the Reality tour in 2004, he had stepped back from public life: his last live performance, alongside Alicia Keys at the KCA Black Ball benefit concert in New York, and his last major film role, as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, both came in 2006, and while he provided a couple of cameos and several backing vocals thereafter, he remained largely quiet until his return with The Next Day in 2013.
His cocaine addiction in the middle of the 1970s left him, in his own words, ‘totally crazed’ and fearing an early demise, compelling him to leave L.A. for continental Europe in order to get clean. It worked – apparently Berlin’s preference for heroin was not to his taste – but Bowie continued to smoke heavily until the birth of his daughter in 2000. The heart attack made plain his imperfect health, his relative absence made space for rumours to spread, and some reviews of Blackstar – the album released just two days before his passing – even without the benefit of hindsight read strangely like obituaries. Yet Bowie kept a cancer diagnosis secret for eighteen months, and if the manner of his death in the face of his creative resurgence makes it harder to bear, it demonstrates an almost implausible commitment to personal privacy while raising his art to a life-encompassing sublimity that seems like a treatise on aesthetics.
From my earliest hearing, Bowie was always connected with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, who in the 1970s became known as the ‘Holy Trinity’ of rock, Bowie producing Lou’s Transformer, mixing The Stooges’ Raw Power, and then later in the decade, now in Berlin, producing Iggy’s The Idiot and Lust for Life. In contrast to the other two artists, Bowie and his music always felt more guarded, more mysterious, and in some ways more melancholic too, and I played it less often, but gradually came to love him all the same in a different way. Like many listeners, I began with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, but like many fans my favourites came to reside in the second half of the 1970s, with Station to Station, Low, and “Heroes”.
Bowie once defined his perennial subject matter as ‘isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety – all of the high points of one’s life’. His music encompassed all of these things, but what really set him apart as a singer was his ability to weave and tread the line between a maudlin sentimentality and an impassioned sincerity, breathtakingly pristine, full of ardor, cutting through the enveloping alarums with the quality of a bell chime. Take for instance the fifth verse to ‘Five Years’, a part Bowie would sometimes perform with overzealous scorn, at other times with an open-chested clarity: on a scene of impending apocalypse, we flicker to a youngster smiling and waving and drinking milkshakes filled with ice cream. The lines on paper might read like a throwaway or worse, a send up of smug complacency in the face of our impending doom, but with Bowie’s original delivery they become the heart of the song, an ode to the everyday, a revelation of the peculiar and imperishable triumph of life.
Beyond his family, friends, and frequent collaborators, for so many people Bowie’s death will be an overwhelming loss, the passing of an inexplicable part of their personality. From glam rock to plastic soul, to his Berlin-era, Krautrock-inspired melding of electronic and funk, to his experiments in the 1990s with industrial and drum and bass – through Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thine White Duke, and Pierrot, the mimetic aspect on which his art pivoted – everyone will have a sound and a sensibility that feels like their own. Tony Visconti has suggested that until the week of his death, Bowie was working on new material, while with Brian Eno he intended to revisit the recording sessions for 1995’s Outside. But with his final flourish, Bowie placed at the forefront a body of music which remains more vital than ever.
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