Here are three ways into David Bowie’s catalog, with enough surprises to engage even the lifelong fan:
The most useful resource for all things Bowie is a WordPress blog called “Pushing Ahead of the Dame,” written by Chris O’Leary (@bowiesongs on Twitter). The project is simple and impossible — “David Bowie, song by song,” as O’Leary subtitled the blog. For a while, it seemed the last entry might be about “Pug Nosed Face,” a song Bowie performed on Ricky Gervais’ “Extras” show in late 2006, his last appearance on television. (It’s on YouTube, and you really want to find it.) Then “The Next Day” came along and screwed all that up, so the blog lives on and keeps up.
In 2013, in conjunction with the release of “The Next Day,” 35 Bowie videos were posted to Vimeo, where they remain (for now). The clips, which span a period from 1972 to 2013, are a comprehensive view of Bowie and the format. This is not a solid trove of genius work — though there are moments worth looping — which is what makes this resource a good lens for Bowie’s work. “Heroes,” the song, is a depiction of romantic unity and its half-life, folded gently and loaded into a glowing sphere that is always both sinking and rising. “Heroes,” the video, is footage of a dude in a skimpy leather jacket standing in front of a big light bulb.
Among the song clips is one television interview, filmed in 1973. Only two minutes long, the excerpt shows Bowie talking to Russell Harty, sporting a red shock of Ziggy-adjacent hair and wearing one elaborate earring. Bowie is polite and sweet and not nearly as transgressive as Harty obviously wants him to be.
“Five Years” (2013) or “Cracked Actor” (1975): Another tie-in released in conjunction with “The Next Day” was the BBC documentary “Five Years.” (The excitement about Bowie’s return really did live up to the 1996 Onion headline “Christ Returns to NBA.”) The 90-minute film does a strong job of corralling Bowie’s career into some kind of plausible narrative, and it does so by borrowing heavily from another BBC documentary, “Cracked Actor,” from 1975. Only 50 minutes long — and perversely easier to find online right now than the more recent documentary — “Cracked Actor” is probably the best single Bowie film. Directed by Alan Yentob, the film follows Bowie through America as he leaves behind the Ziggy character and wanders into the world that will eventually lead to Bowie starring in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Though there is no drug use depicted — and no voice-over, thank God — the whole thing sings with displacement and distraction. There isn’t a dull frame in the film; we see performance scenes that appear nowhere else. Bowie doing the Yorick skull from “Hamlet” while singing a song entirely unrelated to Hamlet! Bowie doing the Burroughs cut-up method! My favorite moment is Bowie, drinking from a gallon container of milk, while listening to Aretha Franklin in a limousine being driven through the desert. You can decide for yourself if Bowie was never not high in 1975.