David Bowie didn’t necessarily have fans. He had followers.
People could collect a few records, maybe grab on to his trilogy of albums from 1970s Berlin or his spectacular early career as a glam rock Ziggy Stardust, but most people I knew who were into David Bowie were into David Bowie. He was the sort of artist who inspired tattoos, dissertations or, judging by social media in the moments since news of his death from cancer spread Sunday night and early Monday morning, a career in music.
Strangely, Bowie’s newest recording “Blackstar” -- released just days before his death -- may have been that album.
Dark, strange and filled with a sense of invention and the unexpected from jazz, with the support of saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band, “Blackstar” drew me in immediately. I was amazed in part that Bowie could not only sound so vital at 69 years old but so surprising as well.
Even over dinner Sunday evening, after marveling at how bizarre yet inviting were the various tracks of his that KCRW pulled into their playlist, I felt ready to revisit Bowie’s catalog to see what other surprises awaited.
And that’s the lesson. With something like five or six careers packed into a one-of-a-kind, constantly shifting whole, David Bowie isn’t an artist who can be summarized in one album, much less some puny playlist. But each song, each unpredictable shift in his sound, image or even persona, might bring you one step closer.
Below are five songs that capture how difficult Bowie was to capture. But it was always so interesting to try.
An already frantic track from 1972’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” is downright manic in this live clip from London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1973. In addition to being carried by an arena-ready shout-along hook in “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am,” this song underscores in bold the line connecting Bowie to what years later would be called punk.
Ask five people for their pick of a song to play for someone who fell out of the sky and claimed to have never heard of David Bowie and odds are you’d get five different answers. But at least one of them will pick this song, which was co-written by Brian Eno during Bowie’s “Berlin” period. Singing atop a swirling backdrop of synthesizer textures and a howl of feedback from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, Bowie sounds defiant, hopeful and triumphant in his most anthemic six minutes.
‘ASHES TO ASHES’
Released in 1980 and quickly seized on by a fledgling MTV, this video showcases Bowie’s mastery of harnessing unconventional lyrics and imagery, and is exactly the sort of thing to keep a child up at night. At various points featuring Bowie in a padded cell, hanging on hooks and as some horrifying clown strolling in front of a bulldozer, the video is an operatic nightmare even with its by-now quaint visual effects. He even offers a grim update on one of the heroes from “Space Oddity” in the chorus: “We know Major Tom’s a junkie.”
‘I’M AFRAID OF AMERICANS’
In one of many examples of Bowie’s reach across generations, this song with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor places him amid the harsh electronic effects of industrial rock (Reznor also remixed the track). Again co-written by Brian Eno, this track released in 1997 is laced with a claustrophobic paranoia that Bowie said in an interview was a reflection of American culture’s global reach.
At just four minutes, “Lazarus” isn’t the most unexpected track on Bowie’s excellent “Blackstar” (that would be its haunting, nine-minute-plus title track). But it is its most poignant in hindsight. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie says to open the song amid sighing horns and a downcast rhythm that still leaves room for hope. Looking at the song’s striking video it’s hard not to think of Bowie’s illness as he floats above his bed and sings of freedom before asking, “Ain’t that just like me?”
Can this song be seen as an autobiographical glimpse? As always, there’s no way of knowing. But we can only hope David Bowie is looking back at us now.
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