As most anyone who cares about rock music knows by now, David Bowie died on January 10. It was a head scratching moment because there were no public reports that he was ill. However, Bowie’s career longevity was based on surprise and this was yet another and one that cannot be topped. He instinctively understood that popular music in concordance with the exploding media venues of the 1960s meant that physical image was as important as the song. He took Concept to its metaphysical end by turning his performing persona into a concept depending on what his next album required. He displayed discretion and maturity by rarely revealing much about his own personality or background – that was usually done by those around him looking to shine in his reflected glory.
Bowie was labeled as a chameleon so many times that it stuck even though I could always tell when he was singing. He had a voice that always sounded like it was on the edge of strain. His vocal tone was flat, though his gift for melody and joy in trying different production settings for his songs made up for it. Unlike Dylan whose voice declined over time, but who tried to make up for it with phrasing that veers from the obscure to the bizarre or Neil Diamond who successfully smothered his intriguing lyrics with a third generation commercial saloon veneer that verges on glop, Bowie kept his singing very real even with – or maybe despite – the wildness of his physical appearance. It was this incongruity that lent him power and longevity.
As a child in England, I thought he was weird, but secretly delighted that he was so public. I lumped him in my ten-year-old consciousness with Elton John, but I knew about half a dozen of Elton’s songs as compared with only “The Man Who Sold The World” and “Ziggy Stardust” by Bowie. My uncle who’d recently been a DJ sent me Lodger as well as Pure Prairie League’s latest as a birthday gift in 1979. PPR was okay, but the new Bowie was an adventure in itself. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. Only when I started college did I find others who felt connected to Bowie, but were already looking on to The Talking Heads, The Replacements, and R.E.M.
By the mid-‘80s, Bowie was enormous and everyone liked him. I think this was most evident in his “Dancing in the Streets” cover with Mick Jagger. He surprised again by backing off and re-thinking what else he wanted to do with his music and himself. I sort of lost touch with his music since my attention was taken by the American Alternative rock groups of the ‘90s and various other performers of the past fifteen years. However, I’m thankful that he was fearless in visually presenting whatever he might have been feeling or thinking about. It wasn’t until I heard he died that I realized how much he meant to me.