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David Bowie died last night and the world has become a slightly less strange and wonderful place.
I first encountered the music of David Bowie when I bought his Hunky Dory album – the one for which he posed as Marlene Dietrich on the cover.
This was about the time I started a long emotionally satisfying (if not particularly remunerative) career in record stores and the RCA rep brought in a play copy – which we played and then promptly ordered many, many copies (probably too many) and proceeded to play the $#!+ out of it over the lunch hour and just off work periods.
It sold like the proverbial hotcakes – and no wonder, with songs like Kooks and Changes and Life on Mars, but especially Oh! You Pretty Things. There was no way to tell where this incredible sound had come from – the album shifted through styles like a chameleon, held together by that weird, high-pitched voice that made every song flow into the next like a patchwork quilt that had no seams whatsoever between the patches.
It was magical.
The RCA did something that was probably motivated by money but felt like more sharing a secret (Psst! He’s got some earlier stuff that’s gonna blow your mind!) – they released two earlier albums: Space Oddity (originally released a Man of Words/Man of Music in the UK) and The Man Who Sold the World.
The title track of Space Oddity was a minor hit at the time, but there are very people who don’t know who poor, doomed astronaut Major Tom is. Even when he was a relative unknown and writing brilliant stuff that next to no one heard, initially, it somehow connected those few who would insist that, ‘Hey, man! You gotta hear this!’ And the songs were so good that they’d bubble along just below the radar until suddenly, everyone would know them.
Somewhere in this period, Deram (The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens) reissued Bowie’s first, self-titled, album. It was an even stranger album than I was expecting because, musically, it wasn’t all that strange. No, it was an album of tunes that echoed music hall and vaudeville and show tunes – only with that lyrical off to the right twist that made most of his later work unique: She’s Got Medals, about a woman who went to war pretending to be a man; Please Mr. Gravedigger, which seems to an a cappella song about a possibly larcenous gravedigger but then takes a nastier turn…
Suddenly, I could see where his later stuff had come from – he’d just reworked it so completely that his later music, while never quite showing his earlier influences, never quite lost them either if you knew where to look and where to listen…
And just when Major Tom was beginning to work his way into our collective unconscious, along came The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The album that made Bowie BIG!
The only real change between Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust was that Bowie had embraced power guitars and the songs were just that little bit stronger – his writing was just that little bit more mature (and he had already reached maturity, musically, with the previous three albums – but this album rocked!). Plus, rock and roll alien! Bowie at his showman best, until…
Aladdin Sane – everything Ziggy Stardust was, Aladdin Sane cubed. And so, of course, Bowie did the expected thing for his next album…
… and released a collection of cover tunes! (Wait! What?)
Yup. Cover tunes – songs originally written and performed by the likes of The Pretty Things, The Who, Them, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and more. What’s more, he made them his own in the way only a genuine original talent can. Really, you’ve never heard anything like David Bowie doing The Kinks.
But, being Bowie, he couldn’t just pick a genre/style and stick with it. He refused to be confined by people’s expectations or what others might have perceived as limitations. After all, this is the guy who did a Christmas duet with Bing Crosby – he wasn’t about to be anything so mundane as predictable!
He played with forms right up to the last – blue-eyed soul, avant-jazz-rock, a bit of metal here a bit of funk there. Sometimes Bowie would get reviews describing an album as ‘disappointing’ – and that album would become something of a classic. Like his character in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie was a bit ahead of everyone else (unlike him, Bowie lived considerably longer and to much greater acclaim).
Through his musical and stylistic transformations (gender fluid, alien rocker, Thin White Duke and more) David Bowie was an original. If it wouldn’t have been such an obvious choice, he could have covered My Way and it would have been perfectly true – but Bowie was never one to take the obvious path.
Through twenty-five albums – some masterpieces, some merely really, really good – David Bowie went his own way and became a legend. He may be gone, but his genius will live forever.