David Bowie has left the building. And what a legacy he has bequeathed the world in his wake!
I am not about to dissect his massive career trajectory or analyse this complex personality that few people ever really knew. Of course he had an impact on numerous genres of music, including electronica. But I shan’t go into that here. Instead I will share how I have experienced him over the years.
I first became aware of who David Bowie was in the 80’s when “Let’s Dance” burned up the airwaves. It was catchy and oh so very different from anything I’d ever heard. My innocent ears were hooked right from the doo wop intro. And David’s richly textured voice and haunting lyrics mesmerized the hell out of my imagination. I actually thought “Let’s Dance” was a love song. It was not until many years later I saw the video, paid attention to the lyrics and realized he was making a heavy statement about the effects of post-colonialism on Aboriginal culture.
Bowie understood how to deliver quite an effective statement using dramatic irony through music. It didn’t matter that I got it 30 something years later. The strength of the song was such that like a mysterious golden thread one finds in a forest, I was compelled to follow its trail to the source. Little did I suspect how deeply it would go or how often it would wind mysteriously.
“Let’s Dance,” the album, introduced David Bowie to my generation. His collaboration with musical alchemist, Chic’s Nile Rodgers as co-producer, cemented this subsequent chapter of continued success.
I need not say how unusual it is for a musician to have such longevity in an industry that regularly chews up talent and spits them out for breakfast. 10 years later, you might catch a former A-lister performing at half-time in the NBA. David’s career spans 50 years. That is longer than I have been alive.
Putting Out Fire, his closing song for “Cat People” (1982) was a strangely soothing finale for a rather frightening film. Veering into adolescence, I found the mix of mysticism, eroticism and violence confusing yet fascinating (hint: my parents should never have let me watch this film!). Nonetheless, I thought this composition captured the essence of what Cat People was about.
And who can ever forget David’s turn as The Goblin King in Labyrinth? I’m sure millions of girls wanted to marry Jareth, even if it meant putting up with his loathsome, smelly minions. A very clever casting decision indeed. Thank God Mick Jagger didn’t get the role! Obviously someone noticed Bowie’s penchant for playing enigmatic characters. Overall, Jareth was a rather ambiguous personality. I knew he was supposed to be bad because he was a goblin and he stole a baby. However, he was also handsome, fun and full of magic. And he could sing! How could The Goblin King be truly evil if he could sing?
I grew up and David Bowie disappeared from my radar, only to emerge years later with his marriage to African supermodel Iman. I admired them both, but I was especially intrigued by the interracial element of their union, which was not particularly widespread at David’s level. I thought, “Here is a man with heart and integrity. He doesn’t care what people think.”
From then on, I occasionally caught glimpses of David when his music was sampled or when he popped up in the news. Generally speaking, I never really heard or saw much of him until the advent of The Prestige (2006), one of the most brilliant films I have ever seen. Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Michael Caine, Christopher Bale and Hugh Jackman, it is a mindbending masterpiece. Bowie’s interpretation of Nikola Tesla is absolutely stunning. His onscreen charisma is virtually unmatched by any other actor except Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. For a long time afterwards, I thought how surprising David was. As a singer/musician, he managed to accomplish a successful acting career, an extremely rare feat. I recognized then that he was a force to be reckoned with.
In 2013, I saw the critically acclaimed exhibit, David Bowie Is while working at The Art Gallery of Ontario. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s show was running simultaneously and it was the craziest, busiest time in the gallery’s history. That experience was a game changer. It was then I discovered the fantastic, versatile, genre bending world of David Bowie. I was surprised to learn that he was making music since the 60’s. Touched that he acknowledged Little Richard as one of his influences. And Jones was his actual surname, not Bowie! His various modalities encompassed theatre, pantomime, commercials, fashion design, computer programming, visual art and more. There were costumes, props, film clips, soundbites, paintings, lyric notes, sketches, storyboards, album covers, a mugshot and a coke spoon. It was mindblowing. I saw it again until I’d had enough. David went over the edge so many times yet somehow, he managed to survive and produce such an amazing treasure trove of art.
I was delighted to discover that Bowie was responsible for a song that I used to hear on the radio during childhood without knowing who the artist was. For the first time, I saw the video for “Blue Jean.” His androgynous, stylish alter-ego captivated me. The way he moved was perfect. I even empathized with his loser nice guy persona trying to impress his gorgeous date. Behind me, the Middle Eastern inspired costume he wore was on display. Security was not around. I caressed the flashy pants and touched the pointy shoes, knowing that David’s fingers once touched them. This was as close as I would ever get to him physically and I was content with that knowledge.
The exhibit made quite an impact on me. Bowie was obviously ahead of his time, yet on point in ushering new trends into the world. Music history is filled with artists that were ahead of their time and died without gaining true recognition. David Bowie is not one of them.
It also occurred to me that now I was getting close to the source of that golden thread I found in the forest. I began to discover that Bowie sang an astonishing number of songs that I loved over the years, but being so young, I could not make an association then. There is a magic and a mystery to how this enigma unfolded. To this day, I am convinced that I was placed at the AGO specifically so I could learn about David’s legacy. The depth of what I discovered cannot be conveyed so easily, neither is everyone ready to accept it. Not like I care. And David did not care either.
Bowie has left the world so many clues as to what he really was. Yet the majority prefer to remain blissfully unaware.
Last summer, I took my recorder into the forest. After seating myself on a grassy knoll, I played Blue Jean. The atmosphere was peaceful, pensive, perfect. I had an appreciative, yet largely invisible audience. My search for the golden ball of thread had come full circle.
I saw the Blackstar video the day it dropped. It was profound. It shook me up. I did not know he was dying, but I recognized great mysteries were being revealed. I found it remarkable that a man in his 60’s remained absolutely relevant in the music industry, nevermind a society that often invalidates senior citizens. My admiration stepped up a notch.
David Bowie left this world 3 days after he released Blackstar, his 25th album. Much has been made about the timing of these events. All I will say is that his exit was orchestrated through mastery. Part of his message was the transcendence of suffering. In suffering there is always a gift. Instead of throwing a pity party and accepting death as inevitable defeat, he chose to give the best of himself. Definitely something the rest of humanity can learn a lot from.
Not to mention, Blackstar’s got some wicked bass stabs. Nuff said!
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