I didn’t have words when I looked at my phone and read the text message from my friend. It said only two words: he’s gone. I didn’t have to guess, after almost eight years of listening to the albums, spanning from Ziggy Stardust up until the most recent Blackstar; after all the hours we spent analyzing favorite songs and expressing our fandom over the phone, I already knew exactly who he meant.
David Bowie died on Tuesday, January 10, after an unknown 18-month battle with cancer. And it almost still hasn’t registered. The guy felt like a god: eternal. Even as I write this I’m still struggling to come to terms with it. At first, like everyone else, I felt sadness. But now there is awe: not just at the fact of his passing, but the tremendous catalogue he carried with him throughout the years, spanning six-count ’em-six decades.
What I will most remember (and am sure everyone will most remember) is his wide range of sounds and characters. Bowie ventured into almost every music genre: rock, folk, soul, jazz, ambient, pop. And he hasn’t done it in the conventional, wannabe way so often failed with other musicians. Everything Bowie touched turned to gold and stood just as well on its own as a part of his catalogue.
Off-hand I might say that my favorite album is Scary Monsters, or Ziggy Stardust, but in the grand scheme of things it really is hard to say. For me, the genius of David Bowie stems from the fact that everything in his catalogue seems to come together eclectically, as well as stand on its own. You can take out any album from the 70s with its own unique sound, but it all shines as authentic Bowie, just a different song in a different era. You’ve got the gender androgynous, wildly flamboyant rock god Ziggy Stardust, who was put to rest for the Plastic Soul, R&B-infused Young American, the Thin White Duke, dapped up in slim suits and slicked copper hair, the equally flamboyant, but more feminine folky Hunky Dory singer, and the pop-style icon that came to mainstream prominence in the 80s.
Flipping through his albums you can hear an infinite range of sounds, each of them equally ambitious, as Bowie makes his entrance into different themes and genres. There are the quiet, but hauntingly resonant moments on Heroes, with somber instrumentals dragging out in the second half. There are Motown-style funky tracks on Young Americans and Diamond Dogs. There are folk ballads, infused with heavy guitar on both Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold The World.
From 2003 t0 2013 there was a relative gap of material, as well as live appearances as Bowie took ill from a heart attack. It was at the most unexpected moment, twice, that he came out and released his last two albums: The Next Day, a collection of classic Bowie sounds put together, and Blackstar, a jazz avant-garde album that served as the perfect final note, well calculated and presented not a moment too soon. Only 4 days after the release the legend had passed.
It still hasn’t completely registered. Just because, to me, Bowie is one of the few musicians who embodies more than the sum of his albums. The man was his own entity, puzzling at times to us, and maybe even a mystery to himself as he struggled for years with issues of faith and purpose. He mentioned trying to find God, as shown in his song “Word on a Wing”, a man who was constantly throughout life trying to fit among the “scheme of things.” Through all his personas we saw a different human ego striving for affirmation, killing the last, and bringing to prominence a new Bowie we had never seen before. I can’t think of any other artist who has accomplished that up to their dying day. Up until the end David Bowie was an enigma, understood as a genius, but then again not completely. Even the biggest fan may never completely understand the mind behind the legend. But this is what made him a legend: the fact that David Bowie seemed to live on a different plane of existence than any of his musical counterparts.
Other artists have tampered with alter egos and then dwindled in their later years, falling into obscurity. When that happened to Bowie he could see the clock ticking. He made The Next Day, mostly as a service to all the fans clamoring for more material. But before he died, he got to be fully 100% David Bowie once again. He did something for himself before anyone else, which is exactly the Bowie we’ve grown to love, defying our expectations time and time again, but still managing to create a final result that was every bit as impressive.
To the legend of rock I can only say “Rest in Peace,” with about a thousand more words in mind to commemorate such a timeless talent. Like in Blackstar, on the day of January 10, 2016, the spirit of our beloved musician “rose a meter and stepped aside.”