clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Even in death, David Bowie is one step ahead of us

New, 67 comments

From 'Space Oddity' to 'Blackstar,' he was a visitor from a brighter future

Terry O'Neill / Getty Images

David Bowie represented the future of music, fashion, and celebrity for half a century. Leaping from London to New York, Berlin, and Mars, he dragged the sound of the world behind him like a traveller strutting through the airport with a rolling suitcase. He was a spiritual liberator, a chameleon who unlocked the door for teenage freaks everywhere and made a perfect lodestar for a world wrangling with new ideas about identity. Even in death, he remains one step ahead of everyone who loved and respected him. Blackstar, the album he released three days before his death from cancer at age 69, now feels less like a late-career revitalization — uncommon, but not unprecedented — than an invitation to contemplate the swirling maelstrom of ideas, memories, and sensations that lies beyond.

Bowie’s knack for reinvention was anchored by his boundless musical curiosity, and the breadth of his impact on popular music is unparalleled. (This was a real problem for writers tasked with reviewing Blackstar: all of the artists you’d think to cite as having impacted the record couldn’t have existed without Bowie in the first place.) After finding a foothold in the late ‘60s with adventurous, oft-delicate psychedelic folk, he sang, played, and snorted his way through what might be the greatest decade an individual musician’s ever had.

His creativity and his work rate were equally staggering. He was the world’s greatest rock star, a glammy extraterrestrial who made up for a thin voice with sheer charisma and buzz-saw guitars; a few years later, he was its finest plastic soul man, enlisting John Lennon and a young Luther Vandross for an album that makes a compelling case for conscious musical appropriation. He floated into the back half of the ‘70s on a cocaine cloud with a swooning, strange album he doesn’t remember making; he went to Germany with Brian Eno to detox and ended up charting a course for the next three decades of the electronic, ambient, and avant-garde. (And then he took a little break and became a pop star, almost for kicks.)

He bent gender and sexuality for the masses

A few hours spent with Bowie’s discography make a better argument for the possibilities of self-determination than a hundred "believe in yourself" childhood pep talks. He was an astronaut and an alien, a duke and a goblin king, a diva and a prophet. He bent gender and sexuality for the masses at a time when many people struggled to do so even privately, and he still represents a queer ideal that’s playful, sex-positive, and devoid of labels. (Everyone from RuPaul to Young Thug is working in the same tradition.) The most important part of his legacy is the joy and ease with which he donned and shed his various skins. He made binaries and spectrums feel weightless by treating them like pieces of a performance: at various points in his career, he described himself as bisexual, gay, and "a closet heterosexual." It’s still a radical, freeing idea no matter who you are. David Bowie made being different look like the most fun, natural thing in the world.

Some of Bowie’s most eloquent, profound writing was preoccupied with time’s passage. He understood its power and the futility of struggling against it, and even his greatest lyrical glories were given some temporal anchor. "Young Americans" documents the ecstasy of young love, but it’s stained by a fundamental sadness: even young Americans get older, and the white-hot burn they feel is going to fade with time. (Bowie, in typically piercing fashion: "We live for just these 20 years / do we have to die for the 50 more?" He’d end up refuting the implicit answer with his own vital life and work.) Consider the refrain of "Heroes," that enduring dispatch from the shadow of the Berlin Wall: "We can be heroes / just for one day." Major Tom couldn’t escape time, either: we find him a decade after "Space Oddity" within "Ashes to Ashes," a junkie stuck floating in space forever. And he might’ve said it best with a single line in "Changes," 45 years before his curtain call: "I watch the ripples change their size / but never leave the stream of warm impermanence."

david bowie iman

Bowie and his wife Iman attend the DKMS Linked Against Leukemia gala in 2011. (Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images)

Let’s turn back to Blackstar, his final statement before leaving that stream. An album that felt formless and elliptical has been given a new shape by Bowie’s sickness and death, and it’s a transformation that feels almost conscious. ("He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way," wrote Bowie’s producer and longtime acquaintance Tony Visconti on Facebook. "His death was no different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.") The title track swirls around a "day of execution" and the space left by a passing; on "Lazarus," Bowie sings, "Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen." By the end of the song, he’s stepping into the void with his head held high: "Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird."

I keep thinking about a line from "Dollar Days," one of the two grand ballads that close the album: "I’m dying to / push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again." Just a few days ago, this felt like a proud, defiant stand from an elder statesman. When Bowie sang "I’m dying to," it was an expression of effort, not a statement of purpose. Three days later, we’re all coming to terms with one final transformation. "I’m dying / to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again." No one was ready; consider us fooled. Beyond the veil, he’s waiting for everyone to catch up once again.