Monday morning, January 11, 7:50, my phone buzzes with a text from John Timmons telling me that David Bowie has died. If I had read it on the Internet first, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have laughed, because David Bowie can’t die. He’s not even a human, just an amazing spaceboy who fell to earth, grabbed a guitar and changed the world with the sounds he made. But John had sent the text, and that meant something different. That meant something was wrong, and maybe I had woke up in a different version of the world where Bowie could die. And now I’m stuck here. Cruelty. If David Bowie isn’t immortal, what hope is there for the rest of us?
If you’re reading this, and you’re not someone who spends their days poring over music and dissecting its movements, then there’s a chance that you won’t understand. But for those of us that do, I don’t have to say what Bowie was. You get it. He wasn’t just a musician, he was a Creator, a god within the game. David Bowie never once phoned in an album. He had a deliberate plan every single time to produce something as a piece of art. Maybe it didn’t always land as a “hit,” but it’s not like he ever cared too much about that part. That’s not to say he couldn’t craft an amazing pop song when he wanted, evident in songs like “Modern Love,” “Let’s Dance,” “Rebel Rebel,” “All The Young Dudes” and countless others, but he could just as easily take a song that was weird and abstract and still hold your attention for all eight minutes.
Beyond the music were the characters: Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, Major Tom, The Goblin King, Aladdin Sane, and finally, the Blackstar. His music was just as much about the performance as the recorded work. He gave us a story to dig into beyond the record, a persona that distracted from the real man, arriving as if they were already legends upon first introduction. This was the real genius of David Bowie. If you just want to be a musician, go ahead and write some nice songs. Maybe we’ll even sing them forever. But if you want to be an artist, it’s David Bowie that you should be studying.
I should also mention his relevance to every single decade and generation of his career. Can you name anyone else who’s had the same impact? Not just with star power or sell-out shows, but actual, artistic relevance? By the time of my own youth, he had already obliterated the ’70s by helping to create glam, twisting soul and funk, and then taking us into the underground of Berlin. When I was finally taking my first steps and finding his music, Bowie was making hilariously fun ’80s pop. For many of us, his name is also synonymous with the word codpiece, thanks to that getup in Labyrinth. Then, in my teen years, we found him teaming up with Trent Reznor for the amazing “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” a song that grabbed me with a claw into my heart, ripping and shredding to get me to pay more attention to the way music, art and happenings of the world can intertwine. It’s a song that changed my life.
His later days should be just as celebrated, too. “Heathen” and “Reality” found a man who had already done so much dive even deeper down the rabbit hole that he had dug. Then when he finally returned after 10 years to drop “The Next Day,” a hell of a great rock album, it was further proof of his unstoppable immortality. Except he wasn’t immortal, no matter how much I wanted to believe. His final album, “Blackstar,” was planned a year in advance by a man who was fighting cancer and knew his days were numbered. The words reflect his inner struggles with his impending death. The music was noticeably dark. Choosing to release it on his 69th birthday, expecting that he may already be gone by then, he made the lead single a song called “Lazarus.” Oh, let me tell you, if it had actually lined up with him passing away before he did, hardcore fans would have been losing their minds when they would have heard that song with the idea of Bowie rising from the dead. It was a masterful, even funny, way to end. Performance art to the highest degree.
Thank you, David Bowie, for the fantastic voyage. •
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.