Friday, January 15, 2016

David Bowie was a pop genius who kept getting it right

David Bowie
A truly great artist, beautiful melodist, and elegant gentleman.

Like so many of my generation, waking up to the news of David Bowie's death was a shocker. The first words I heard when my clock radio alarm sounded at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, the start of a new work week, came from the voice of Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, who said matter-of-factly -- and without any hesitation -- "David Bowie is dead."

With these four words, "David Bowie is dead," immediately I sat up in bed, confused, my head spinning. Fight back tears, I began remembering the many faces and sounds of this most innovative, iconic and illustrious artist and musician.

The 69-year-old Bowie's career had staying power -- five decades and 25 albums -- stretched over two centuries. Imagine that. His hits were many. "Fame," "Heroes," "Young Americans," "Changes," "Let's Dance," "Modern Love," "China Girl," immediately come to mind. But there are so many more, too. Bowie excelled at mixing rock, jazz, disco, pop, soul, glam, art rock, hard rock, metal, punk, electronica with ease. He bent genres with his music -- and was gender-bending with his many personas.

David Bowie ~ 30 essential songs:

David Bowie / His artistic breakthrough came with
the gender-bending persona Ziggy Stardust.
In remembering Bowie, The Hollywood Reporter wrote: "Bowie's artistic breakthrough came with 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, an album that fostered the notion of rock star as space alien. Fusing British mod with Japanese kabuki styles and rock with theater, Bowie created the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust."

Rolling Stone called the influential Bowie "One of the most original and singular voices in rock & roll for nearly five decades" noting that the British artist and musician "championed mystery, rebellion and curiosity in his music. Ever unpredictable, the mercurial artist and fashion icon wore many guises throughout his life."

A Tuesday Night Memo explores David Bowie's "Where Are We Now?"

Soon, after word of Bowie's passing spread through social media, the tributes and accolades began pouring in, both from musicians and music critics.

"The right words would be written in ink on card, not to be suddenly and brutally, like the news. In acknowledgement, the lights on this particular and peculiar little theatre will be lowered for a while. With deepest gratitude and respectful condolences to the family and friends of a truly great artist, beautiful melodist and elegant gentleman," wrote Elvis Costello on his Facebook page.

Sting on the passing of David Bowie wrote: "Trudie and I were totally captivated by his energetic charm, his extraordinary music, his art and his unique spirit. We will never forget him."

The Rolling Stones issued a statement: "The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie. As well as being a wonderful and kind man, he was an extraordinary artist and a true original." Added Mick Jagger: "David was always an inspiration to me. He was wonderfully shameless in his work. We had so many good times together. He was my friend. I will never forget him."

Peter Ames Carlin, the author of several books, including biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, wrote on his Facebook page: "I am both crushed and awed by David Bowie's death. That he knew he was dying, that that fact informed everything about this epic work of art he unleashed hours before he died. That 'Lazarus,' the song and especially the video, are such beautifully rendered works about his own life and death. He turned death into a creation. It's kind of the ultimate act of artistry, that he could transform the dousing of the lights into such a spectacular life-affirming event."

On the PBS News Hour, Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis said: "He continually reinvented himself. David Bowie never seemed old." Added British Prime Minister David Cameron: "David Bowie was a genius. For someone my age, he provided a lot of the soundtrack of our lives."

Indeed, Bowie wrote anthems for the alienated, mixing rock music and theatricality throughout his career. Think Major Tom, think Ziggy Stardust, think Thin White Duke. He influenced generations of musicians and fans. I remember the thrill of spinning his early eighties album, Let's Dance, as a college DJ in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It remains my favorite David Bowie album.

On the occasion of his 69th birthday last week, Bowie released a new album called Blackstar, made in collaboration with a quintet of jazz musicians. Said NPR: "Bowie's work often addressed inner truths and existential questions. He was always morphing his sound and his look."

David Bowie / His new album, 'Blackstar' showed him
to be an adventurous artist and musician to the end.
Like so many, immediately after learning the news of Bowie's death, I began exploring his life and career. That afternoon, I purchased Blackstar via iTunes. Not surprisingly, it has been the most downloaded album on iTunes throughout the world this week. That evening as I sat down to dinner, I listened to it in its entirety for the first time after hearing "Lazarus" a few times in recent weeks on the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show via

I enjoyed what I heard from start to finish, and like the chameleon Bowie had been his entire career, I'm not surprised he avoided rock & roll. Instead, Bowie surrounded himself with a group of very bright and talented jazz musicians and created a jazz fusion album, a throwback to Miles Davis circa early seventies. It's very listenable and I think longtime Bowie enthusiasts will applaud his sound and direction.

"It could've gone so terribly wrong," wrote NPR music critic Barry Walters in his review of Blackstar. Fortunately, it didn't and Blackstar showed Bowie to be an adventurous artist and musician to the end.

David Bowie / "What I'm most proud of is that I can't help
but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music."
As the subject of countless interviews, Bowie once said: "My entire career, I've only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety -- all the high points of one's life."

Bowie will be remembered as a musical master of reinvention, a pop genius who kept getting it right.

"What I'm most proud of is that I can't help but notice that I've affected the vocabulary of pop music," he said. "For me, frankly, as an artist, that's the most satisfying thing for the ego."

Video of "Blackstar": Courtesy of YouTube. Photos: Courtesy of Google Images. 

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