Listening to Bowie, Two Years Later
Tonight is the second anniversary of the passing of one of music’s greatest voices. David Bowie was a restless reinventor, constantly shattering his own paradigms and defying the music industry to place him in a particular category. Bowie’s career coincided with many of the most profoundly impactful events in history, and at each of those events, it seemed, there was Bowie, with another persona, another guise, another revelation of himself (or was it a revelation of the society around him?)
In the 70s, he was Ziggy Stardust, the halcyon of a new future. He was society casting off the last traces of expected behavior and embracing its own inner fire. He was hostile, electrifying and magnetic.
In the 80s he was the Thin White Duke, a monochrome vision of a world that had fallen on cynical times. He was an embodiment of the withdrawal from everything. He was a ghost searching for a resting place.
In the 90s he began stepping into the role of elder statesman, a role marked, in my mind, by his stunning and revelatory performance on VH1’s “Storytellers.” There was no Ziggy, no Duke to be seen in that performance. It was just Bowie. A man reflecting on a career already several decades long, and only entering midlife.
Listening again to the monologue at the beginning of “China Girl,” you hear the fondness and self-deprecation of a man who has learned from his life experience, but who doesn’t for a second regret the path his journey has taken him on. You can hear him speak tenderly of the vibrancy and tragedy of life in Berlin before the Wall came down. And when he starts to sing, the normally upbeat and tripping rhythm transforms into the intro of a mournful ballad. As he mentions in passing, the song may originally have been about invasion of sorts, but where are the conquerors now?
Bowie was a conqueror to the end. His last album before his death is both his darkest and most uplifting. Few can sing of hope from the bottom of a well like Bowie could. Fewer still could sing of darkness and defeat from the top of the mountain.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Bowie kept his final illness a secret until almost the very end of his life. After all, Bowie was never one to let his actual circumstances interfere with the story he was crafting. Many artists use themselves up in pursuing their art. None were so adept at creating masterpieces from wreckage as Bowie.