By Steve Krause
I’ve been sitting here for two days trying to figure out a profound way to start this column that I had a funny feeling I was going to write. And then it dawned on me that there really wasn’t a way to express my overall feelings about David Bowie that contained the right amount of intellectual gravitas and dewy-eyed admiration.
That’s because to me, David Bowie was, first, last and always, delightfully daffy. Weird. Willing to go to whatever outrageous lengths necessary … willing to take on almost any persona and run with it, whether it was to relieve his boredom or to keep people guessing. Whatever it was, Bowie was game.
And that could be because despite all of his antics, his costumes, his glitter, his whatever else, David (nee Jones) Bowie knew he could get away with it because, beneath it all, the man had talent oozing out of him.
There’s nothing really intellectual about any of that, nor was there anything really intellectual about Bowie. He wasn’t Yes or the Moody Blues, or anyone else penning metaphysical meanderings for the masses. He wasn’t John Lennon or Bob Dylan, writing music that stood as representative of a generation stuck between hedonism and eternal angst.
He was unique. He gave us androgyny, and when he was tired of that, he gave us something else, whether it was the soul sound of “Young Americans,” or the Thin White Duke days of “Golden Years,” or his reincarnated disco king of the “Let’s Dance” era (for which the late Stevie Ray Vaughan played lead guitar).
Stripped of all his definitions, David Bowie wrote, and sang, killer songs. It didn’t matter what he looked like or how much cocaine he was ingesting (and apparently it was quite a bit, especially in his emaciated Thin White Duke look).
In whatever iteration Bowie presented himself to the world, there was sure to be great music to go along with it. His early years were full of wonderfully innovative music, from “Changes” to “Space Oddity,” to “Starman.” And when he grew tired of that glam rock persona, he bade farewell to it with his album “Diamond Dogs,” that contained one of his stone-classics, “Rebel, Rebel.”
Bowie had the knack of easing out of one role and into another seamlessly. He took a lot of flack in some circles for “Young Americans,” but even if it represented a radical departure at the time, it was still a good song.
To me, that was Bowie’s gift to rock ‘n’ roll. Songs. Some groups made their mark with albums. He did his with songs — and not just the ones he sang by himself. He gave Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople “All The Young Dudes,” and it became a huge smash (and, personally, one of the real thrills of seeing the J. Geils/Ian Hunter doubleheader last August was listening to that song, which closed the opening set).
His collaborations with Iggy Pop made him better … and his protege famous.
He went into the studio one day with Freddie Mercury and Queen, ostensibly to record another song. Next thing you know, they were collaborating on “Under Pressure,” one of the real strong eighties songs.
He even sang with Bing Crosby. As the story goes, he and Der Bingle were to do a Christmas show (which, ironically, was wrapped up about two days before Crosby collapsed and died of a heart attack after playing 18 holes of golf). The plan was to sing a duet of “The Little Drummer Boy,” except that Bowie hated the song. So, a counterpointed tune was written for him that became the “Peace on Earth” part of a song that is now one of the staples of the Christmas season.
Bowie went through several other phases during his career, and they always ended up yielding signature tunes, whether “Fame,” “Ashes to Ashes,” and my personal favorite, “Heroes.”
Bowie was more fortunate than many of the heavyweights among the circles in which he traveled. John Lennon was murdered at the age of 40. George Harrison died of cancer at 59. Through the last 30 years, we’ve seen so many of our childhood rock idols cut down by some combination of bad living and natural causes. Frank Zappa anybody? Chris Squire? Jerry Garcia? The list is long and there are too many names to mention.
Bowie died of cancer Sunday night at the age of 69. And while that might be too much for some to comprehend, when you see how some of these people — including Bowie — lived, you wonder how it’s possible they’ve lasted as long as they have. Keith Richards? David Crosby?
Bowie’s musical legacy is writing a string of tremendous songs that, when you line them up and play them back-to-back-to-back on Spotify, as one of my friends said the other night, “you’re gobsmacked by how great he really was.”
He also added an element of risk and campiness to the genre that has served it well over the years. How many times has Madonna reinvented herself? Do you suppose she thought of Bowie — the king of reinvention — every time she launched another incarnation? How about Boy George? Do you think he’d have ever seen the light of day were it not for Bowie?
Think of all the rock ‘n’ roll acts that were long on camp if not always talent. All of them can thank David Bowie for making that possible. Every time I saw “Twisted Sister” on MTV in the 1980s, all I could think about was how proud Bowie must have been to see that.
In typical Bowie fashion, he left us with one more bit of bizarre theater by which to remember him. If you haven’t already seen it, look up the “Lazarus” video on YouTube. It’ll haunt you.
The journey is over for Major Tom, regrettably. But what a trip it was.
Steve Krause can be reached at [email protected]