Last month I was on a huge David Bowie kick. I created a playlist for the car that I listened to every day for a few weeks and watched both the Showtime documentary Five Years and Bowie’s guest appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on Hulu. The Bowie binge was precipitated by the news of his new album and the surreal, vaguely disturbing video that accompanied the title song, “Blackstar”. I didn’t know that Bowie was dying. Nobody outside of his immediate circle did.
There’s nothing in the “Blackstar” video that would indicate a man on his last legs. Bowie looked old, but he was 69. His voice sounded strong and clear, even if it wasn’t the commanding instrument that went toe-to-toe with Freddie Mercury in “Under Pressure”. The music was high on atmospherics, and low on guitar crunch, but that had been Bowie’s sound since the late 1970s when he traded in Los Angeles and London for Berlin. The song was good, if a bit long, but it carried one Bowie trademark: it didn’t sound like anything else. Even at the age of 69, David Bowie was challenging himself and his audience. His final video, for the song “Lazarus”, shows Bowie in a hospital bed, blindfolded. At the end he steps into a wardrobe and closes the oak door on himself, disappearing into a symbolic coffin. He even made his death into an artistic statement.
Bowie had his critics, including Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who claimed that Bowie’s entire career was just a pose, an artificial construct. The criticism is valid to a point, but misses the larger picture. Bowie did work within the confines of artifice, but that doesn’t mean the music was artificial. Are Warhol’s paintings of a Campbell’s Soup artistically false because they portray something found in most people’s kitchen pantries? Does Jack White’s plastic guitar and red/white/black color scheme mean that the blues he plays is less legitimate than John Lee Hooker’s? Bowie’s costumes, the poses, the “Is he or isn’t he gay?” controversies, the elaborate theatricality of his stage show, were all designed to offer a framework for the listener and concertgoer to be immersed in the art. This was more than just music; it was theater, it was pantomime, it was acting. It even touched on literature; on his Serious Moonlight tour he performed the song “Cracked Actor” while singing into the face of a skull he held in his hand, a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Yorick. Bowie’s art covered a far wider spectrum than that of his peers, though the music was always the most important part: “Space Oddity”, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Station to Station, Low, Scary Monsters…these are all essential rock and roll recordings, deserving of a home in any rock fan’s record collection.
Too many of the encomiums that have been written since his death try to portray Bowie as some sort of social activist, a champion of gay rights, but this is a dreadful misreading of his art. Yes, he played with gender roles and was the first rock star to openly announce that he was gay but even that was part of his art. Later in his career Bowie said that he had always been “a closet heterosexual” and seemed reticent to discuss the extravagant pansexuality that had garnered him so much attention (much of it negative, but there’s no such thing as bad press) in his early 70’s heyday. The tributes to him that focus on his gender-bending androgyny do the artist a grave disservice; they focus on the façade and not on the music that was the heart of his artistic expression. I’m sure Bowie was pleased to know that he was an inspiration to a lot of kids who felt alienated and different, whether it was because they were gay or simply because they were different, but it was not the purpose of his various personas. The purpose was to provide a showcase for the music, an ever-changing persona that allowed him to explore whatever musical inspirations were guiding him. In the early 70s he essentially created glam rock by adopting the persona of an alien that had come down to show a dying Earth how to have a good time in its final days. When he fell in love with Philly soul he became a soul man, putting on a suit and crooning in his smoothest voice. When he went to Berlin and became entranced with Kraftwerk he cut his already short hair even shorter and adopted the ice-cold look of Euro disco. When he embraced the New Romantic movement in the early 1980s he appeared like a long-lost member of Spandau Ballet.
Bowie was not a chameleon, disguising himself by blending into his surroundings. He was a shape-shifter, using his body, his bands, and his stage as a canvas to illustrate the music in his head. With all of his various personas Bowie gave the audience the chance to actually see what music looked like. Throughout his career, Bowie became his music. In this sense Bowie is unique among musicians. All true musicians are artists. David Bowie was art.