David Bowie now belongs to the ages. In the seven days since the world learned the sad news of his passing, much has been written about the man and his majestic oeuvre. Our communal bereavement compels us to compose online eulogies and assemble playlists of cherished songs which once served as the soundtrack for both recent and distant moments. Mike Doub, writing at 33⅓’s blog, puts it well when he notes that our “degree of collective mourning has been beneficial to [his] own grieving.” Just as so many other admirers have done, I too must share my thoughts on David Bowie.
Although I didn’t appreciate his place in the cultural realm at the time, I first encountered Bowie by way of 1978’s David Bowie Narrates Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I’m not certain when my parents purchased that record for me, but I do remember listening to it during my very early years. As a child of the 1980’s, I came to know his hits from that glorious decade, including “Let’s Dance,” “Dancing in the Street,” and, of course, “Under Pressure,” his magnificent collaboration with Queen. The soundtrack to the 1986 film Labyrinth, which starred Bowie as the Goblin King, offered us “Magic Dance,” which to this day still provokes a genuinely wonderful joy. As the late 1980’s fell to the early 1990’s, I found myself listening to classic rock radio and learning a bit of his fine work from the 1970’s (although the disc jockeys of that era rarely strayed beyond a limited set of Bowie’s popular singles). If memory serves, it was about that time that I came to own Changesbowie, the 1990 compilation album, and “Fame ’90,” a remix single released that same year in conjunction with that hits package.
1992 saw the release of Cool World, the curious live action/animated film starring Gabriel Byrne and Kim Basinger. Its soundtrack introduced me to a new version of Bowie, who contributed to that effort “Real Cool World,” a work of what was then called techno. That same year, he briefly appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a film based on the “Twin Peaks” television series, an obsession of mine at the time. Shortly thereafter, I was taken aback upon first hearing “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” the vibrant first single from Bowie’s 1995 concept album, Outside. In the following years, I collected what I could of his sizable discography. When I moved to South Carolina from Texas in 2006, the instrumental track “A New Career in a New Town,” from 1977’s Low, became the unofficial theme song of my journey. Just last year, when I created a playlist composed of one song from each year I’ve lived on the occasion of my fortieth birthday, I chose Bowie’s epic anthem “Heroes,” his finest moment, as my selection for 1977.
The epic concerts we miss haunt us for many years to come. Though I’ve seen many artists perform live, I never beheld David Bowie in concert. I am the poorer for it. He released Outside in September of 1995 in the dawn of my sophomore year at The University of Texas at Austin. Only a few weeks later, on October 14, 1995, Bowie brought The Outside Tour to South Park Meadows, a now defunct Austin live music venue I frequented in those days. My old friend Ryan Steans, an indefatigable blogger who now writes at The Signal Watch, recently recounted that Bowie’s 1995 Austin show served as his first date with Jamie, his wife of now 16 years. Looking back, I’m not certain what occupied my attention that night, but I negligently failed to attend that show (a grievous error, especially since I had just seen Radiohead open for R.E.M. and the Ramones perform with Pearl Jam on consecutive nights at that venue just a few weeks earlier). In 2004, I lived in Beaumont, Texas, 100 or so miles from Houston, where David Bowie stopped at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in April of that year. Unaware of the show, I missed it, as well.
Now we find ourselves a part of a popular culture absent David Bowie, once its ubiquitous fixture. For many, including myself, there was never until this week a cultural landscape that existed without Bowie thriving therein. As Jemaine Clement, a member of New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords musical duo, remarked on behalf of that group, “Both born in the ’70s, we hadn’t witnessed a world without Bowie.” To fans and followers of popular music, Bowie remained omnipresent in both his output and influence, and we always anticipated that he would soon release something intriguing and new. Unlike many of his contemporaries who long ago lost whatever edge they once maintained, Bowie never halted his quest to experiment and reinvent himself. One need only listen to Blackstar, his haunting final album released just a few days before his death, to confirm that fact. Its stark album cover, appended at the top of this post, now seems especially foreboding in light of what we would soon learn about the state of his health.
We are, as one Twitter user recently observed, “losing the unloseable.” Like intrepid concert photographer Ben Stas, I now marvel at “the degree to which the man has been omnipresent in my life since I first took a serious interest in music.” Upon learning of his death, I could react only by creating a Spotify playlist of my 50 favorite David Bowie tracks. For how many artists could one assemble a list of 50 beloved songs? His vast body of work, coupled with his ostensible permanency in the world of music and film, explains why his death affects so many who never personally knew him. We never thought it would come to an end because we could not conceptualize a world without him. But now he is gone.
Requiescat in pace, David Bowie (January 8, 1947 – January 10, 2016).