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>> Monday, January 11, 2016

It turns out that David Bowie merely seemed immortal.

I have to wonder, would the news this morning that he lost his life to cancer yesterday be less shocking if he hadn't released a new album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday and two days before his death?  We don't necessarily think of birthday parties and record releases as being the last acts of dying men (Warren Zevon excepted, perhaps).  Though there's something biting about that in perfect retrospect: Blackstar, like Bowie's previous record, The Next Day (2013) dropped without fanfare, without even a hint the artist was in the studio (compare to last week's breathless announcement that Radiohead was merely back in the studio, noodling around and no idea when something might actually hit the public).

I haven't heard more than the two early-released tracks from Blackstar, "Blackstar" and "Lazarus", but they certainly seemed portentous, ominous, fatalistic (first line of "Lazarus": "Look up here, I’m in heaven"; last lines: "Oh I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me").  But The Next Day was full of songs about mortality, memory, and wrapping up life's little loose ends.  Songs about the immortality of celebrity ("Stars are never sleeping / Dead ones and the living" he says in "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)"), songs about being old ("Had to get the train / From Potsdamer Platz / You never knew that / That I could do that / Just walking the dead," he sang in "Where Are We Now?").  Even the cover of the record is a deconstruction of the iconic cover of his classic, "Heroes" (1977).  In retrospect, you wonder if he thought The Next Day was going to be his last record and kept the sessions quiet because he wasn't sure if he'd have the songs finished to his liking.  Ditto Blackstar.

And then I wonder, too, if the news that we've lost Bowie isn't somehow worse or more shocking because he was one of those guys who appeared physically indestructible.  He spent a decade, the 1970s, notoriously debauched.  Strung out, pansexually voracious.  Consuming every mind-altering substance discovered or invented by man; sleeping with women, men, and, on at least one occasion, a god (if you believe that infamous Angela Bowie story, and who doesn't hope it was true?).  But where so many of his peers OD'd, burnt out, faded away, blew their minds out--for Bowie, hitting rock bottom consisted of relocating to Berlin, where the drugs were allegedly harder to get, and knocking out three perfect records (Low (1977), "Heroes", and Lodger (1979)) like Babe Ruth pointing his bat at the stands.  And when so many of his sexually adventurous peers were meekly announcing they had contracted hepatitis or HIV--or were dying outright from AIDS--Bowie settled down and married a supermodel, and in a breach of the usual traditions and norms they eschewed the tabloid divorce in favor of a quiet, calm, twenty-four year marriage that lasted to the end of his life.  This was all surely part of Bowie's favoring by the gods: always a delicate, frail-looking man, a "Thin White Duke," with china bones and parchment paper skin, and if the 1970s couldn't kill him, well....

Of course there's the music, too.  Timeless in a sense that David Bowie, as an artist, frequently seemed to be outside of time, to have a casual relationship to it as an outside observer.  It's cliché to point out he was a chameleon, a cross-dressing folk singer in one phase of his career, an elegant crooner in another; an elder statesman of pop, a decayed pre-post-punk, a sparkling alien.  He was a brilliant songwriter in his own right, but utterly stunning as a cover artist who did Nina Simone and Jonathan Richman, Bruce Springsteen and The Pixies.  A solo artist who seemed to come from and exist in his own little world, and yet was a totally natural and at-ease collaborator with Trent Reznor and Bing Crosby, John Lennon and Queen.  When Blackstar came out, with a track called "Lazarus" on it, some people noticed that there's an English doom metal band calling itself Lazarus Blackstar and marveled at how strange it would be if David Bowie was a secret doom metal fan; except that Bowie, who recorded a cover of "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" before Born To Run dropped (ergo, before anybody knew who Bruce Springsteen was except maybe the accountants at CBS who were losing their hair over how badly Springsteen's first two albums were doing), whose tastes ran from jazz to industrial to styles he had to invent himself, probably did listen to sludgey doom metal; why not, he listened to everything else, absorbed it, assimilated it, reinvented it.

Which is why this post isn't going to begin or end with the obligatory Bowie cut.  How could it?  There's no such thing as the quintessential David Bowie track.  They're all the obligatory emblematic song and none of them were.  Was "Station to Station" more typically Bowie than "Blue Jean"?  Was "Diamond Dogs" more representative than "Everyone Says 'Hi'"?  Why "Suffragette City" instead of "Kooks", or "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" instead of "African Night Flight"?

I think I might, later today, and/or through the week, post some great, some not-so-great, and some outright terrible Bowie tracks.  Because it's the kind of thing you can do when you have a blog and the Internet, and maybe I'll remind you of something you hadn't listened to in awhile, or maybe I'll manage to pick out a favorite of yours that you play all the fucking time and can't get enough of.

Because that was David Bowie.


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