David Bowie's sound and vision


If David Bowie seemed immortal, it’s because he was just so far beyond all of us it was as if he couldn’t possibly be human.

Even with the news of his death at 69 this morning, it doesn’t seem real. There, in his life, lies a back catalog of work in music and in film that is unrivaled, partially because it doesn’t look like anyone else’s work and primarily because it’s so dense and brilliant.

Run a finger through his career quickly. There are stops in Mars and Berlin, in the dance club and in the desert, through machines and acoustic guitars and theaters and arenas. On the surface, his musical styles seem to change as often as his hair, but looking closer it’s all part of one long expression, with textures and moods explored as phases that file into a greater whole.

For the sake of argument, start at “The Width of a Circle” from The Man Who Sold the World, and take in the then-progressive tendencies of what started as simply a kicking rock and roll song not too far from where the MC5 were operating. Suddenly there are breakdowns and movements with more memorable bits that add up to a swirly sound collage. Zip through the Ziggy Stardust era for more of the most memorable songs in what we call “classic rock” now and see that they’re written and performed with a depth and sense of drama that didn’t otherwise exist.

From there, things start to go off the rails (in the best way). Listen to all the sections of Station to Station’s title track, or make a playlist of all the instrumental tracks from Low and Heroes, then go back through “Heroes,” “Fame,” “Sound and Vision” or any of the jaw-dropping songs of that era. Walk around in his conquering pop from the 1980s before coming up for air with the brutalist Tin Machine, then back through as he stays ahead whatever was supposed to be happing in the 1990s on Earthling. His last three records — Heathen, The Next Day and the four-day-old Blackstar are as listenable and compelling as anything in his long, long discography. There could never be enough to say about all of it.

The cult that surrounds him includes all his eccentricities, with his costumes and personas detailed nearly as heavily as the music itself. Adding to that are the key roles in his movie career — Jareth in Labyrinth, Nikola Tesla in The Prestige — that pushed his personality further into the outreaches, beyond understanding. He was not Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney or Willem Dafoe or Iggy Pop or Marc Bolan or Christian Bale or anyone else with whom he happened to cross paths. He didn’t even try to play their game or anyone else’s.

He’s as beloved as he is, in part, because he was simply a dizzying talent who did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He did it without regard to playbooks or setlists or current trends. He was beyond whatever rules are supposed to govern music. Just about everything he recorded seems to stand outside of time — even his occasionally hairy excursions. And he did it all with a suave, debonair flair.

There’s rock and roll, there’s pop, there’s jazz, there’s electronica, there’s blues, there’s horror, there’s science fiction, there’s fashion and floating above all that, yesterday, today and forever, there’s David Bowie.

A version of this column first appeared here.

Jan. 11, 2016

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