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Ashes to ashes: The Verge staff reflect on David Bowie's career and music

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Half a century of hits, deep cuts, and classics

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David Bowie released 25 solo LPs, two albums with a band, and one soundtrack in his 49 years as a working musician. Some of that music was incredible, some of it was decent, and some of it was bad; all of it was, at the very least, interesting. Many of us here at The Verge have specific and personal connections to Bowie's work, and we're sharing them together to celebrate the life and work of a singular, transformative artist.

"Space Oddity," Space Oddity, 1969

Chris Plante: When I was 11, my parents took me to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. I haven’t been back since, but I assure you that despite the pitch — a building dedicated rock stars — the museum was impossibly dull in my preteen eyes. It didn’t help that I had the musical taste of a goldfish. Outside The Beatles and Elvis, I felt lost in a stew of psychedelic posters and latex pants. On one floor, I remember, the museum featured a row of headphones, each playing a different iconic song — a tour of rock music, essentially.

My dad, spotting my boredom, recommended I kill an hour listening to each song, and so I began at one end of the room, and gradually made my way to the other. Midway, I came across David Bowie’s "Space Oddity." This song is secretly about death, thought my smug 11-year-old mind. I returned to my dad and enthusiastically shared my findings. "I think you’re right," he said. "How does that make you feel? That the song is about death?" I wasn’t sure. My dad encouraged me to give the song another listen. I did. And in the middle of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with David Bowie in my ears, I sat on the floor and wept.

"Oh! You Pretty Things," Hunky Dory, 1971

Michael Zelenko: Of all of Bowie’s albums, I know and love Hunky Dory best. I had it on a burned CD, and it was what my friends and I would listen to when we drove to the foothills behind our school to smoke weed. Sometimes I’d go alone. I was slowly transitioning from a stoner who knew all the words on 40oz. to Freedom to whoever it is I am today, and Bowie was one of my guides. "Oh! You Pretty Things" is Bowie at his best — at once anthemic and deeply personal, the entire thing sparkling with an otherworldly brilliance. "Oh! You pretty things," Bowie sings over and over, "don't you know you're driving your mamas and papas insane?" At 17, I felt like he was singing directly to me. My freshman year of college, I salvaged my car for $400; I can’t remember the last time I opened my CD collection. I learned about Bowie’s death on Instagram, of all places. But I listened to "Oh! You Pretty Things" today, and the song still rings morbidly, gloriously true — maybe now more than ever. "The earth is a bitch," Bowie croons, "We've finished our news / Homo sapiens have outgrown their use."

"Queen Bitch," Hunky Dory, 1971

Emily Yoshida: A danceable rock song about feeling sick and miserable and anxious — Bowie isn’t doing anything here that the Velvet Underground hadn’t done the decade before, but the acidic sense of humor was the hook in my early explorations of his catalog. The hammy vocals spoke to the fading high school theater kid in me, but the resignation was no put-on — I never knew you could have disdain and desire exist simultaneously in a pop song, to mock the thing you’re addicted to so bitterly. (I once put it on a Kim Kardashian-themed mix CD I gave to a co-worker.) As arch as the song is, there’s a bleeding heart just about to burst below the surface of every line, a tension that he would explore over and over again throughout his career — there’s an entire novel behind that hiccupy laugh in "If she says she can do it, then she can do it / she don’t make false claims." As alien as Bowie could be and would continue to be, I felt like I knew all the characters in this story.

I’ve learned to live with and accept The Killers’ homage-lite to the song, "Mr. Brightside," but it’s a paper thin pastiche next to the dense black comedy of "Queen Bitch."

Backstage on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1973

Tasha Robinson: Sit down with any random group of women my age and bring up Labyrinth, and you’re going to get some pleased grins and knowing snickers. For at least one generation of us, David Bowie wasn’t the androgynous, queer-friendly, sexually experimental rock star of the 1970s. Girls of a certain age got the training-wheels version of that persona in Labyrinth, via tight pants and suggestively wiggling hips in a role specifically meant to worm its way into the adolescent psyche. I was an adult before I realized there was more to David Bowie than the leader of a pile of singing puppets in a Jim Henson movie, and the fun of discovering him as a grown-up was that there were just so many versions of him to discover.

One of the ones that sticks with me most is the one I discovered most recently — the star glimpsed behind the scenes in the concert doc Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The performances in that film are indelible, but what’s even more striking is the way Bowie grins and jokes while shucking one giant glam fashion-explosion of a costume and climbing into the next. There’s no pretension there, and no self-consciousness. He just seems like he’s having fun. Of all the lifelong rock stars, he seemed like the one least burdened by his own hype, and the most willing to admit it was all pretend. And as a result, it feels like he was the one who most enjoyed his fame without letting it poison him. Contrary to one of his most memorable Labyrinth lines, he never seemed exhausted from living up to our expectations.

"Can You Hear Me," Young Americans, 1975

Russell Brandom: Getting over a breakup a few years back, I fell into a heavy Bowie period. I already knew the hip, alienated albums, but this time I fell hard for Young Americans. Here was the same glammed-out pretty thing trying to figure out what it means to feel loneliness and regret. After so much pretending, how can he know when he’s faking? I’ve heard the '70s were hard on Bowie as a person — the touring, the drugs — and from this song, you believe it. In a career full of role playing, it felt like one of the few times he let the costume fall away. Or maybe it was just the costume that meant the most to me at the time?

"Always Crashing in the Same Car," Low, 1977

Tamara Warren: So few artists capture the magical in the mundane like David Bowie could. It’s a considerable task to sift through his expansive body of work and pluck out the timeless gems. He’s left us with more than songs — his oeuvre ranged from poetry and costume, to film and performance art, and will carry on. The dazzling Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was an early blueprint of Bowie’s treasures — and perhaps worth the trip to the Netherlands where the show is still traveling. Bowie might be gone, but he will keep taking us to outer space, to other worlds, and through the more painful aspects of being human in the years to come. This simple song about a Berlin car accident in his Mercedes-Benz from his 1977 album Low is a guide for navigating the wild journey that was indeed a fantastic voyage.

"Heroes," Heroes, 1977

Jamieson Cox: "Heroes" takes an elegant, simple idea — love can be a rebellious, heroic thing — and straps it to a Krautrocket, one fueled by Brian Eno’s oscillating synthesizer and Robert Fripp’s roaring feedback. The product is the most powerful, enduring song to come out of Bowie’s Berlin period. It’s a piece of proto-post-rock released 15 years before Tortoise, Slint, and the rest picked up the torch; it simultaneously invented and cast a long shadow over everything James Murphy’s ever written; it’s been credited with helping to bring down the Berlin Wall. She’ll be mean and he’ll drink all the time, but it doesn’t matter: in that moment below the guns, nothing can touch them. They feel the same way I do when I press play on this song.

"Fun Time / Sister Midnight," live with Iggy Pop, 1977

Lizzie Plaugic: Today, several musicians will come out and say how much David Bowie meant to them, and to their careers. And it's true that Bowie did support several lesser-known artists during his come-up. One of those musicians was a small, misleadingly muscular dirtbag named Iggy Pop, whose face appears on the cover of one version of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's oral history of punk Please Kill Me. I read the book three times before I was old enough to legally drink, and the stories told there — about Lou Reed's sleazy come-ons and Tom Verlaine’s fawnishness — became signposts of an era I had never lived in.

Still, I felt I understood it in the way teenagers never hesitate to claim complete and unchallenged comprehension of something. David Bowie only appears briefly in the book, usually as a kind of nervous, extravagant imp who confused everyone he met. The Stooges' manager Danny Fields recalls saying to Iggy Pop, "Be nice to this David Bowie person. Besides, he's pretty and I want to meet him." In retrospect, I think I projected a flawless sense of coolness where it never existed on almost everyone in Please Kill Me, but I still think it would've been cool to meet David Bowie.

"Lazarus," Blackstar, 2016

Ross Miller: Every generation grows up with certain pre-ordained "legends" — those whose influence is already well established. Not only was I born into a world that David Bowie melded, I was born into a world where a generation of those influenced by him have long been spreading the gospel. It's not just Bowie the Musician, mind you, but Bowie the Artist. Bowie the genre-bending, gender-blurring Icon who thrived between definitions. How is it that Bowie fits just as perfectly in a Trent Reznor collaboration as he does dancing with goblin muppets? Because both were created in Bowie's world. It's particularly emotional for me knowing that his last album was written fully aware that it was his final days — knowing that he'd be giving his full body of work a proper ending. Even in private moments, the artist was composing:

"Lazarus" isn't my favorite Bowie track, but as an epilogue, it's painfully poignant. Now, if you excuse me, I'm gonna go listen to "All the Young Dudes" on repeat and cry my eyes out.