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When I was a kid, my favorite record was David Bowie’s greatest-hits collection “ChangesOneBowie.” It wasn’t just that he was English, or that he used words like “ass” and “bitch” and, well, “leper messiah,” or that when I played the record loud for my best friend, Tommy, he got the same worried look on his face that my mother did. All of these things were cool enough, but they represented a deeper attraction: David Bowie embodied the threat and thrill of everything not suburban, that is, everything I aspired to from the time I realized all I had to do was grow up and get out.
In England, Bowie was a big enough star to serve this purpose for everyone. The sharpest spearhead of glam rock, he catalyzed the British punk revolution of 1976 — legend has it that one or two future Sex Pistols made off with the P.A. system Bowie used at his last Ziggy Stardust show, in 1973, which is too useful an anecdote to doubt. On this side of the Atlantic, Bowie hardly flopped, but in ’70s American culture he remained a cult figure. Unequivocal worldwide superstardom didn’t come to him until the calculated-
Many rock purists wish it weren’t so, because much of that influence is nonmusical. Bowie’s main contribution to the rock vernacular was a disregard for the rock vernacular. He was an actor who impersonated a pop star, singing through unlikely characters and skewed narrative stances, never resorting to that generically American accent that used to define international rock, always creating an image rather than revealing himself. When Bowie is described as a chameleon — as he invariably is — it’s a description not just of his musical style-hopping, but of his personality, for in his prime, each in his procession of public personas tended to be at odds with the last, and if the Bowie presented on an album was ever voicing the “real” Bowie’s sentiments, you had to guess at where.
Bowie plucked ideas from everyone, but he was never a mere copyist. He married Jean Genet to the Yardbirds, Bertolt Brecht to Jacques Brel; he latched himself onto Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and absorbed their refusal to compromise with the mainstream. He crafted irresistible sing-alongs about despair, and mustered his most passionate love song about the Iron Curtain. In Bowie’s world, nothing was safe or simple, and by refusing to stay put, standing for nothing but change, he allowed his creativity and his mystique to feed off each other and flourish.
Bowie was born David Jones in 1947 and grew up in a bleak suburb of postwar London. About his youth, the most salient fact is that a friend once punched him in the eye, permanently dilating one pupil and thereafter giving his eyes the inimitably cool appearance of being two different colors. Between 1964, when he made his first record with an R&B combo called the King Bees, and 1969, when he hit the pop charts, he made decreasingly futile stabs at mod pop, music-hall whimsy, Kinks-derived satire and Dylanesque hippie balladeering. Alarmingly, he also practiced mime on the side.
It was in his hippie guise that he emitted the watershed 1969 single “Space Oddity,” which tells the story of an astronaut, Major Tom, who blasts off into space and decides not to return to Earth. As both writer and singer, the shorthand with which Bowie alternates the voices of “Ground Control” and Major Tom is masterful: “‘Tell my wife I love her very much’/'She knows.’” Out of the blue, Bowie seized on the themes of alienation, distance and outer space as a metaphor for inner space that have recurred in his writing ever since. But “Space Oddity” was his only song to make the grade for another two years. His odd 1970 album of lumbering hard rock and Nietzschean pomposity, “The Man Who Sold the World,” is notable mostly for its endearing cover, on which Bowie posed as a reclining odalisque in a silk dress, his extravagantly long curls nearly brushing his bony cleavage.
Bowie got married in 1970 to a flamboyant London scenester named Angela Barnet, and the couple had a son, Zowie, the next year while Bowie put together “Hunky Dory.” Seemingly all at once, he developed both a sense of humor and a consistently accessible pop sense. About half the album is either obscurantist or cutesy, but there are enough gems to make it the first indispensable Bowie album. “Changes” is his theme song by default, and it’s pretty brash for someone who’d had only moderate success in the past: “Oh look out, all you rock ‘n’ rollers!” “Oh! You Pretty Things” was a warm-up for the next and boldest step of Bowie’s career, proclaiming a common bond between conquering aliens and the antsy teenagers of the world. And Bowie’s Velvet Underground tribute, “Queen Bitch,” sounded the first blast of the raunched-up, homoerotic bubble-gum tease that was about to change his fortunes.
Around the time Bowie was making “Hunky Dory,” England was seduced by Marc Bolan, aka T. Rex. Having started as an airy folkie prattling about magical lands, Bolan went electric, put a little makeup on, exchanged goofiness for outright lyrical delirium (“You’re built like a car, you’ve got a hubcap diamond star halo”) and almost single-handedly brought simple three-chord fun and sex back to a British music scene mired in so-called progressive rock, blues jams and earnestness. As Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray spelled out in their fabulous 1981 book “Bowie: An Illustrated Record,” “glam rock” depended on several post-Wildean propositions: among them, that aesthetics are more important than politics; that a performer should put on a performance, not just show up stoned in a macrami vest and sandals; that earnestness equals lack of imagination; that art is artificiality. Woodstock-era rockers were hippies just like their audience, but glam rockers reveled in the trappings of stardom. (Todd Haynes’ surreal film “Velvet Goldmine,” which rewrote history blatantly and was foolishly disparaged by critics for its inaccuracy, conveyed — and embodied — the spirit of glam brilliantly.) Bowie was already no stranger to self-reinvention, and he recognized his historical moment.
So, at the beginning of 1972, he got a short, spiky haircut, donned a spacey cat suit and platform boots, let slip to an interviewer that he was bisexual, recorded the sublime single “Starman” and became Ziggy Stardust, the beloved and doomed ultimate rock star. Real life and fiction merged on “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” released barely six months after “Hunky Dory.” The album’s vague plot goes approximately thus: In a doomed world — “News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in” — young Ziggy listens to the radio and hears a “starman” delivering the cosmic gospel, “Let all the children boogie.” He takes heed and decides, “I could make a transformation as a rock ‘n’ roll star.” (After all, he muses, “I could do with the money/I’m so wiped out with things as they are.”) Though we’re told elliptically of Ziggy’s success, flameout (“Ziggy sucked up into his mind”) and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie jumbles up the points of view and star metaphors until we can’t tell the difference between alien and human, performer and fan, future and present, Ziggy and Bowie. It’s not only a winning batch of songs with echoes of Bolan, the Beatles and Reed, but also a smart pop-art statement about itself and one of the few “concept albums” truly worthy of the term.
At the start of the Ziggy experiment, Bowie began traveling around in limos with an ever-present bodyguard, assuming the prerogatives of stardom before he’d earned them. In the middle of the hype, he found time to co-produce Reed’s “Transformer” album and remix the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” side projects that cemented his affiliation with the addled royalty of outsider rock. (His resuscitation of Iggy Pop as a solo act a few years later helped, too.) And he donated one of his best songs, the anthemic smash “All the Young Dudes,” to Mott the Hoople, producing their album as well, which ensured his primacy over the glam field.
In the year following the release of “Ziggy Stardust,” Bowie’s look got weirder and weirder: The casual blond spikes became a lurid scarlet nimbus, the layers of pancake multiplied until he looked like a zombie, fake hands grew out of his cat suit to clutch at his nipples. “The idea was to hit a look somewhere between the Malcolm McDowell thing with the one mascaraed eyelash and insects,” he told an interviewer in 1993. At the same time, he was writing darker songs like “Panic in Detroit,” “Cracked Actor” and “The Jean Genie,” which appeared on the muddy, manic 1973 follow-up, “Aladdin Sane”: Ziggy was becoming the picture of Bowie’s Dorian Gray.
In July 1973, Bowie abruptly retired Ziggy without explanation. He came out with an amusing but unnecessary album of ’60s covers, “Pin-Ups,” then planned to write a stage musical based on “1984,” but George Orwell’s widow withheld the rights. He went ahead anyway with the roughly Orwellian suite that is “Diamond Dogs.” The charging title song and “Rebel Rebel” are among Bowie’s best singles and close off the glam era with decadent aplomb, but elsewhere on the album he delved into the depersonalizing effects of Orwell’s totalitarian society in “We Are the Dead” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” whose chorus goes “When you rock ‘n’ roll with me/There’s no one else I’d rather be.” The absence of “with” at the end of that line points toward the icy, unhinged narcissism of Bowie’s next phase.
Having relocated to the States and bid farewell to the ambisexual orgies of Ziggy’s heyday, in 1974 Bowie bought a wardrobe full of double-breasted jackets and fat ties and set about becoming the most ersatz soul crooner ever. “Young Americans” is pretty fine as an update of the honored English tradition of appropriating black American music (and Robert Palmer clearly took notes), but it’s no more interesting than any other record featuring Luther Vandross on vocals and David Sanborn on sax — with the exception of the glorious, incomprehensible title song and “Fame,” his first American No. 1 single.
Bowie next remodeled himself into the Thin White Duke, a persona so chilling that he seemed to be faking being human, like the extraterrestrial character he played in his first feature film, Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Bowie was excellent in the role, but it remains unclear just how much he was acting. The same year, he released one of his finest records, “Station to Station,” which portrays a nearly psychotic emotional disconnection: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love”; “Should I believe that I’ve been stricken?/Does my face show some kind of glow?” Equivocation marks the gorgeous, unsettling love song “Stay,” and the breathless narrator of “TVC15″ communes only with his TV, telling us an unclear story about how it’s sucked up his girlfriend. The music, slithery funk with overlays of squealing rock guitar and florid piano, is as audacious and peculiar as any rock music before or since. I used to play the hit single, “Golden Years,” over and over, though I doubt many child psychologists would endorse this much coked-up anomie in an 11-year-old’s diet.
Bowie escaped America and transferred his home base to Switzerland in 1976, while in London Johnny Rotten, his hair a ratty imitation of Ziggy Stardust’s, followed the Ziggy blueprint for self-willed stardom. Over the next three years, collaborating with Roxy Music’s former in-house deconstructionist, Brian Eno, Bowie made three consecutive albums, in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe, that avoided the problem of how to follow up a hit by largely disdaining mass sensibilities altogether. “Low” and “‘Heroes’” (both 1977) had emotionally deranged singles; challenging cut-up lyrics (directions: Cut any writing into strips, rearrange and see what happens) and music (directions: Write out a song’s chords on a chalkboard, point at them randomly until band goes mad); and long, experimental instrumentals that put off casual record buyers. The Wallflowers’ clueless 1998 cover of “‘Heroes’” only reinforces the original’s claim to be one of the killer rock singles of all time. “Lodger,” in 1979, eschewed the instrumentals, but the singles “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” were as spiky as that old haircut. In short, Eno shook Bowie out of a solipsism that looked to be driving him around the bend. The trilogy’s use of electronic textures in a pop context (influenced by the German group Kraftwerk) itself directly inspired the great new wave of British electro-pop, just as the doomy atmospherics sketched out a path for Joy Division, the Cure and thousands of black-draped followers.
In 1980, Bowie capped off the part of his career that matters by starring in the Broadway production of “The Elephant Man” and releasing his last landmark album, “Scary Monsters,” on which he belts out the strongest, most actorly vocals of his career, ranging from the howling fury of the opening rant, “It’s No Game,” to the song’s exhausted reprise at the end, sandwiching in between every stance from tortured madness (“Scream Like a Baby”) to haughty ennui (“Fashion”) to the stunning minidrama of “Ashes to Ashes,” which revisits space boy Major Tom, still floating around the ether 11 years after “Space Oddity.”
Bowie’s ’80s were a startling retrenchment, during which he introduced his next persona: Normal David. After finally escaping the financial depredations of a Draconian old management contract, he decided in 1983 to earn himself a nest egg. Bowie gave interviews declaring his history of role-playing and sexual adventuring long past, essentially making sure no quirks remained to put off the buying public. Even his son Zowie was now called Joey. I remember the excitement when “Let’s Dance” came out, the first Bowie album in three years, and how hard it was to get used to the idea that it was really Bowie — that jolly, anti-intellectual party funk blasting from the frat houses. “Let’s Dance” served its commercial purpose, but it was a far cry from past glories.
At this juncture, it’s only polite to jump forward a dozen years, during which Bowie released a succession of dull albums that dared little, with the exception of his bar-band experiment, Tin Machine, which dared to be excruciating and got him dropped from his label. He appeared in several movies, including a swell turn as Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but his other films were cult favorites at best (“The Hunger,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” “Labyrinth,” etc.). In 1992, he married Iman, which seemed to drop him with a clatter into the Mick Jagger/Rod Stewart bin of old rockers who replace their absconded muses with supermodels.
Even Bowie must have understood how dire things had gotten, for in 1995 he reconnected with Eno, who, since their ’70s work together, had gone on to co-produce some of the most popular and critically lauded records of the ’80s and ’90s, all by U2. The resulting album, “Outside,” was bold and knotty, but also tuneless and thuggishly pretentious. (It’s subtitled “The Nathan Adler Diaries” and further billed as “a non-linear gothic drama hyper-cycle.” If you’re still curious, God bless you.) Bowie told an interviewer that he was delighted with the album’s “big hairy massive balls”; he subsequently toured with one of his musical offspring, Nine Inch Nails, but was regularly crucified by the competition.
He generated far more attention in 1997 by hosting his own enormous 50th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden and by an unprecedented business gambit: He issued “Bowie Bonds” worth $55 million, using future royalties on his back catalog to back them. The bonds were all snapped up immediately by the Prudential Insurance Co., and Bowie’s pockets were suddenly overflowing. It was a conceptual stunt worthy of the old Bowie, just in a new field. (James Brown issued his own bonds last summer, and other celebrities are rumored to be mulling it over.)
Amazingly, after nearly two decades in the aesthetic wilderness, his last two albums, 1997′s “Earthling” and “‘Hours … ‘” from 1999, have been — to me, anyway — his most enticing since “Scary Monsters,” and his portrayal of Andy Warhol was easily the most entertaining element of the 1996 film “Basquiat.” “‘Hours … ‘” has no evident commercial or aesthetic axes to grind, a first for Bowie, and it features lovely, rueful songs of experience sung in a cracking, (apparently) nakedly emotional voice, suggesting that his role-playing days may at last be behind him. It was one of the best albums of 1999.
And Bowie’s current numerous cyber-adventures prove he’s still prodding at the future — still “wiped out with things as they are.” As the overseer of an Internet service provider, BowieNet, he hosts chats for members, alerts them to worldwide cultural happenings and keeps up a sprightly journal that indicates he’s a scarily happy man (a recent sample: “What great fans I’ve got! I had such a lovely time on the mini-tour and it was so good to see you.”); the lyrics for one of the songs on “‘Hours … ‘” were solicited in an online contest. If you want a credit card with his picture on it, he’s also the nominal patron of the online BowieBanc. He’s been seriously painting for many years — his style owes a large debt to Francis Bacon — and uploads his work and others’ to an online gallery. And a few months ago he contributed new music and his likeness (as well as Iman’s) to a video game, Omikron, put out by the company that created Tomb Raider.
In September, Virgin Records rereleased Bowie’s back catalog in revelatory remastered editions that sound more electrifying than ever. At age 53, he’s alone among his contemporaries in retaining a high cool quotient among kids whose parents are old enough to have been teenage fans of Ziggy Stardust: When he appears at a Placebo concert or on the MTV Music Awards, he can still elicit genuine teenybopper swoons. Bowie may never change rock music again, but since he, more than anyone, honed rock’s current cutting edge, few observers would not forgive him, in the end, any of his latter-day trespasses.
Greg Villepique plays guitar in the band Aerial Love Feed.More Greg Villepique.
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