While January marked a new beginning for many, it marked the end for music icon David Bowie. On Jan. 10, just a few days after his 69th birthday, Bowie succumbed to his undisclosed battle with cancer.
How do you write about a man who was several men? Whose collaboration with Queen would later inspire the success of Vanilla Ice? What do you say about a man who conquered music, film and fashion?
Skilled on the saxophone, guitar and keys, Bowie released his debut album — “David Bowie” — on the same day in 1967 as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It was a commercial flop. Bowie was dropped from his record contract, enrolled in a dance class, appeared in a television commercial and performed as a mime. In 1969, he released a second album titled “David Bowie,” with a single that would go to the top of the UK chart: “Space Oddity.”
There are a few songs that I remember hearing for the first time — songs by which I was so moved that I still remember where I was and how I felt. “Maybe I’m Amazed,” by Paul McCartney. “Piano Man,” by Billy Joel. “Space Oddity” is one of those songs.
Released 10 days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the song tells the story of fictional astronaut Major Tom and his journey into space, presented through dialogue between the astronaut and ground control. As Tom ventures further through space, communication and control of the ship are lost. While ground control unsuccessfully attempts to inform Tom of the problem, he floats idly through space, lost — literally and figuratively — in the grandeur of the galaxy as seen from far above the moon.
“Though I’m past 100,000 miles, I’m feeling very still, and I think my spaceship knows which way to go …
“Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom?
“Here am I floating in my tin can, far above the moon. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”
Bowie continued his theme of space exploration with his 1972 release, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” A space opera about the fame and excess of rock star/intergalactic communicator Ziggy Stardust, the album explores literary themes of the end of Earth, a rise to stardom and interstellar interaction while challenging popular perceptions of fame, sexuality, and the art of music. With the end of Earth impending, Ziggy is sent to deliver a prophecy of hope but loses himself to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as he became the world’s biggest star. As the album ends, Ziggy’s message is delivered and realized, but only through his own death.
While touring the album, Bowie played the part of Ziggy Stardust, dying his hair and donning shiny, striking, sci-fi costumes and referring to his band as the Spiders from Mars. He even gave press conferences as Ziggy Stardust, not as David Bowie. As this continued, Bowie began to lose himself to this character. His decision to retire the character was made to preserve his own mental health, and the announcement of Ziggy’s final concert came as a surprise to even the Spiders.
David Bowie accomplished much more in his 50-year career than any column could begin to cover. He released 26 albums, masterfully adapting the style of his music and fashion to his developing interests while drawing influence from classic and contemporary artists, technology and world events. He starred in cult film-favorites “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Labyrinth.” His other roles included Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol and Nikola Tesla. He appeared in the continuing-film of the television series “Twin Peaks.” He rejected knighthood. There is a spider named after him (“heteropoda davidbowie”).
But, as Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote shortly after Bowie’s death, “Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider.” From his outfits to his musical perspectives and themes, Bowie was never concerned with aligning himself with popular culture, or even with this world. Near the beginning of his career he delivered one of the greatest stories told through song from the lost astronaut, Major Tom, and as Ziggy Stardust he challenged and expanded social norms at a time of dwindling but prevalent conservatism and pessimism while creating one of the first and greatest concept albums in music. Yet for both characters, their achievement came only with their own demise.
What can you say about a man who lived in space before Neil Armstrong and Star Wars? Much like his characters, Bowie was always an outsider. And like those of his greatest characters, his achievements are once again recognized and praised as he makes his own exit. Rather than returning to the earth, perhaps his ashes will lift into the sky, far above the moon, lost to drift in the grandeur of the galaxy.