Very early this morning, I received a message from a close friend, asking me if David Bowie had really died. I was shocked, and scrambled to find out if the horrible news was true, or just another fake Internet story, created by the types of jerks who enjoy celebrity death hoaxes. After all, David Bowie's latest album "Blackstar" was just released a few days ago - Could one of the greatest musical artists of all time really be gone? Sadly, it turned out to be true. The enigmatic superstar died at the age of 69 after a long battle with cancer. While nothing I can write will be adequate enough to truly memorialize a musician who was so much more than that, here are a few of the reasons I believe David Bowie was one of the most important artists of our time.
Bowie was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London on January 8 1947, and exhibited an artistic streak and musical talent throughout his early childhood. Later, at Bromley Technical High School, Bowie studied art, music, and design, further developing a love for both early rock and roll, and jazz. He also sustained a major injury to his left eye, after getting into a brawl with a friend over a girl they both fancied. The fight left Bowie with damage affecting his depth perception, and with a permanently dilated pupil which gave him a slightly otherworldly look that later became part of his image.
Bowie spent most of the 1960s playing in a succession of shortly lived rock and roll bands, changing his name from Davy Jones along the way to avoid confusion with the member of "The Monkees" , before exploring avant garde theater and other experimental art and musical movements in the latter part of the decade. He managed to score a record contract, and in 1967 Bowie's first full length album was released, although it failed to find an audience. By 1969 David Bowie had settled into a folk rock hippie musical style, but nothing huge was happening with his career until the "Space Oddity" single was released in July, several days before the Apollo 11 launch, becoming a top five hit in the UK.
Bowie's career really began to take off in 1970 with the release of his third album "The Man Who Sold The World". Backed by a new and harder hitting rock band led by Mick Ronson on guitar, the album was a departure from the folk sound that Bowie had presented earlier. That album was also notable because it marked Bowie's first use of a transgressive image, promoting himself as androgynous and appearing at certain interviews wearing a dress. His next album, "Hunky Dory" was released in 1971, helped along by great songs like "Queen Bitch" and Bowie's still evolving image, but things really came together the following year with "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars".
That album, and Bowie's transformation into an outlandish extraterrestrial rock star changed music forever. It was an album that delivered on a promise that rock and roll had always hinted at to its fans, but had never been so fully realized - That it was OK to be a weirdo or an outsider. Fans of Ziggy Stardust were emboldened with the knowledge that breaking from the herd and presenting themselves in unconventional ways was not only allowed, but a form of freedom that one should aspire to. Bowie's early '70s persona broke down and challenged societal ideas about sexuality and gender. It gave countless young people music to live by and the security in knowing that they were not alone, no matter how strange their families and neighbor's might think they were. David Bowie planted the seeds for so many others to come, inspiring innumerable punks, goths, and rockers who would find inspiration in his Ziggy Stardust era music and image. Every young dude whose ever slathered on makeup owes Bowie a huge debt of gratitude whether he knows it or not. Every weird kid whose had fun freaking out his or her parents by aping Marilyn Manson's look should salute David Bowie, as should Manson himself.
Most musical artists are fortunate to experience one "golden age", and they tend to stick with whatever worked during it for the remainder of their careers. David Bowie could've rolled along with his Ziggy Stardust image for several more years, before the public's interest would've burned itself out, but he didn't do that. He famously announced the band's retirement at a 1973 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, shocking fans in attendance, and around the world as the news quickly spread. But Bowie didn't retire from music, he instead shifted gears, and explored new musical and artistic styles over the following years. David Bowie was one of the few artists to ever create multiple personas and to find success playing very different types of music throughout his lengthy career. Most artists that try major changes in their image or music lose fans and get laughed at, but Bowie excelled at reinventing himself many times over, and kept his music interesting to millions of fans.
He was also an artist and actor, and his acting career in particular is interesting. Far from being made up entirely of cameos of himself (Although he did a few of those, and some are brilliant), Bowie's acting was not the typical case of a famous musician appearing in one or two movies before giving up on films. Instead, Bowie has a long list of film roles that is as notable as that of many professional actors. He took that stuff seriously, and it showed in his performances. Over the years he played everything from a stranded alien in 1976's "The Man Who Fell To Earth", to a doomed vampire in "The Hunger", Pontius Pilate in "The Last Temptation Of Christ", Jareth the Goblin King in "Labyrinth", and Nikola Tesla in "The Prestige". I know as many people who enjoyed his career as an actor as much as his music, and few other artists can claim such an accomplishment.
David Bowie may not have stolen the world like the character in his old song, but he changed it a whole lot, and he will be sorely missed.
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