David Bowie spent the past year or so working on his 25th album, Blackstar, which he released Friday, the day he turned 69. A jazz saxophonist who worked with him on it praised the songwriter’s singing voice and visionary energy in an interview on a podcast discussing the making of the album. Everyone thought the Thin White Duke was back, riding yet another creative crest in his golden years.
Then, two days later, he died. He had been battling cancer for 18 months, but apparently told few people. His video for the single “Lazarus” was most likely a farewell letter.
And so it always went with pop music’s biggest chameleon and cultural envelope-pusher: He loved to confound expectations and leave his audience guessing.
David Bowie was easily one of the most innovative forces in rock-n-roll, a restless creative force who influenced so many other artists and musical genres. He’s easily in my Top 5 favorite music artists of all time because of his relentless exploratory streak, the way he pushed music forward in so many directions and combined it with great songwriting and lyrics about space missions gone awry and rock stars from another planet.
Over his long and varied career, Bowie kept producing what you’d think of then as a new creative peak, only to be sustained or surpassed later in another musical form altogether. Listen to 1976’s Station to Station, an paranoid funk and soul album that to me captures the sound of a man at the height of his creative powers, making urgent pop sound effortless, and then drop the needle on the Berlin-era album Low, an ambient electronic album recorded with Brian Eno in Berlin in 1977 that still sounds challenging and innovative as hell.
“David, who shall we invite to the wedding?” “Bono. Ono. Eno.” “I love you, you unstoppable conceptual bastard.” pic.twitter.com/U8YlDwvBUT
— Gray (@gray) October 14, 2015
He was way ahead of the video-music revolution, recording several videos during his Ziggy Stardust phase during the ‘70s, and he capitalized big time on the advent of MTV in 1981. (In fact, seeing the lo-fi but eminently weird video for “Ashes to Ashes,” or even those for Berlin-era rockers “Look Back in Anger” and “Heroes,” did a lot to make me a lifelong fan.) He had the fashion-forward, camera-friendly looks, certainly — but also the artistic vision to exploit this revolution to perfection.
Bowie was no dinosaur who staged corporate-sponsored jukebox performance concerts (cough cough… Rolling Stones) or skated by on his back catalog or his colorful stage personas. Though he had unofficially retired from performing in public, the recent years had seen in him a creative spurt. In 2013, he surprised the world with the release, without fanfare or prior notice, The Next Day. He made a handful of videos for songs written during the last decade that are reliably good and strange, Bowie-esque experiences.
Brian Eno on David Bowie’s passing. pic.twitter.com/qHsaDA9RPq
— Chanders (@Chanders) January 11, 2016
And yes, Bowie was gloriously weird, always offbeat. When I first discovered his music via ‘70s rock radio and later MTV, people were still befuddled by his time as Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous (and gay) glam rock star from another planet. As time passed, people obsessed over that phase less and less, yet he was still a man who could be counted on to push the envelope, appearing as a sad circus clown and declaring that “We know Major Tom’s a junkie” or scoring a No. 1 hit called “Let’s Dance” that was more deconstructed funk than danceable.
As the news of his passing spread today, I was struck by the genuine outpouring of emotion from even unexpected quarters. People at work whom I’ve never discussed music with or wouldn’t peg as fans stopped me to chat about it. An old friend who lives on the East Coast texted me, saying Bowie “reminds me so much of our childhood.” The Washington Post ran a piece in which political scribes and other non-entertainment writers sounded off on their favorite Bowie songs. Despite a busy day at work, I listened to at least six of his albums back to back on headphones.
Now he’s gone and we can’t believe it.
So, not knowing how else to fete the man, here is a handful of my favorite Bowie songs that probably don’t make the cut on most album-oriented FM rock radio stations. Because for all of his songs that have become staples of FM radio — and there are many — it’s his in-between, lesser-known work that is most innovative and fascinating.
Rest in peace, you Space Oddity. Thanks for everything.