Being David Bowie

David Bowie 1978 at the Oakland Arena, photo by Jon Lewis

David Bowie performing at the Oakland Arena, 1978. Photo by Jon Lewis

I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to get my mind around the fact that David Bowie has passed away, and it’s not going so well. This one hit me hard. His death marks our greatest musical loss – scratch that – greatest cultural loss since the murder of John Lennon in 1980.

Bowie, who was born in Brixton, South London in 1947, died on Sunday just two days after celebrating his 69th birthday. He had battled liver cancer for the past 18 months.

An official accounting of his music career will show that he sold an astounding 140 million records, with 17 albums certified as platinum, gold or silver. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Bowie also charmed movie audiences in dozens of films, including Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Prestige.

Make no mistake, the numbers and recognition mattered to him, but they don’t begin to tell the full story of his legacy. He was a true original in everything he did. Bowie was a man who lived quite comfortably in his own skin, and his influence extended beyond music. In terms of his sexuality, he was out as a bi-sexual man decades before it was safe or fashionable or – within the world of rock & roll – commercially prudent. The art and fashion world also embraced his myriad androgynous alter egos. If you were a musician on the fringes of the music industry in the 1970’s, but maybe you were gay or a little weird – or even a LOT weird – suddenly none of that mattered if you had talent and an original voice. Bowie made it safe for everyone to play in the pop music sandbox. Without David Bowie, there is no Ramones or Blondie or Hedwig or Lady Gaga and others too numerous to list, and it’s a safe bet that his musical and cultural influence inspired Freddie Mercury to evolve into the artist and performer he became. Bowie accomplished all this without carrying a torch or flag for the cause. He succeeded in the most honorable way: by joyfully being the true original that he was. By being David Bowie.

As for his music, the cliché is apt – he was a genius. I could suggest dozens of songs and albums – his entire multi-genre musical oeuvre – as evidence for this, but with economy Bowie himself might appreciate, I offer a single moment within a single song: when Bowie strikes a single piano key at the 2:28 mark of Lady Stardust (from 1973’s iconic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars), the tension released in that moment is greater than the sum of its musical parts built over the previous 2:27. The note feels perfect; a visceral cue that inspires the listener to play air piano, becoming one with the band – an honorary Spider from Mars – if you will.

Those unfamiliar with his music and looking for an entry point are advised to start with the Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust albums, and fill in the gaps with his career-spanning retrospective collection, Sound + Vision.

Bowie is survived by his wife, Iman, and one son and daughter.

Michael Jewel Haley
Michael Jewel Haley is a Bay Area artist, photographer and writer.  He grew up in Redding, and developed his love of movies during Saturday afternoons at the Cascade Theater. See samples of his artwork at michaeljewelhaley.com.
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16 Responses

  1. Ranee says:

    Fitting tribute to a musical legend, thanks Michael!

  2. A. Jacoby says:

    A sad loss, indeed.

    • Michael Jewel Haley says:

      I did a mental inventory of the number of musical giants who are still going strong into their advanced years, and boy are we in for a staggering number of losses in the not-too-distant future. Just sayin’…

      • A. Jacoby says:

        Of course, I’m sure you know Rod just had his 71st a couple of days ago . . . and still packing them in. Over 80,000 at each of two concerts in Rio in December. But losing David so young (spoken from an 80 year perspective) just isn’t palatable.

  3. Mimi Moseley says:

    Beautiful tribute, Michael!

  4. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I never got into glam rock as a kid—I didn’t get it.  (There are always exceptions to rules: Bowie’s “Fame” and “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex, for example.)  My tastes ran toward Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones, Flying Burrito Brothers, Mothers of Invention, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and The Clash.  I didn’t really pay any attention to Bowie until he hooked up with Stevie Ray Vaughan for Let’s Dance, and even then I was only mildly interested.  I probably thought of it as “chick music” when I thought of it at all.  But I liked Iggy Pop’s garage rock, and it was years later that I discovered Bowie co-wrote some of Pop’s best songs, including, “Lust for Life,” and played on and produced many more.  It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve come to more fully appreciate his accomplishments.

    “The Man Who Fell to Earth” definitely got my attention, though.  It was one of the first movies I watched as a teen (junior in high school) that made me think that a bunch of weirdos could get together and make a movie as a piece of art that was like nothing else before it.  I’m not even sure that I thought it was particularly good.  I just knew that it wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen.

    I listened to Bowie’s 2002 “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross yesterday.  A smart, interesting person for sure, with a good sense of himself, as well as a good sense of humor.

    I’m just going to drop this here:  My nephew’s Sacramento-area band, Basket House, fronting Peter Petty on a couple of Bowie covers at Berryessa Brewery:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmrCHYWHWDM#t=11

    • Michael Jewel Haley says:

      Steve,

      Growing up in rural Shasta County meant I came to the party late for a number of great artists who made their mark during my childhood. Like you, my early exposure to Bowie tripped me out a bit, but once I heard the “Hunky Dory” album I realized this man an artist of actual substance. It’s never too late to discover and appreciate great art, music, literature.

      Thank you for your comments, and good luck to your nephew.

  5. Lori V says:

    Saw him in 2002 shortly before the 1st anniversary of 9/11 with one of my best friends from college. We were sitting in our seats at Shoreline Amphitheater saying we hoped to hear “Heroes.”  A woman next to us remarked how relevant that song was given the time and we agreed. He did play “Heroes,” happily, and my friend and this unknown woman put our arms around each other’s shoulders swaying and singing along. It was a unifying moment that was remarkable!  David’s voice was so strong – more so than any video or recording.  I’ll never forget that experience. An amazing artist and performer!  He will be much missed.

  6. Michael Jewel Haley says:

    Lori,

    We attended the same show at Shoreline! I also saw the Let’s Dance and Glass Spider tours. Bowie was mesmerizing on stage. Wish I could have seen him as Ziggy Stardust in 1973.

    Thanks for the comments.

  7. Kathy says:

    Nicely done Michael. I watched his new video Lazarus, before we knew he had passed. I initially viewed it as interesting, if not a little weird (no surprise) – now, what a gift he gave his fans (old and new).

    • Thank you, Kathy. As another writer remarked this week, Bowie’s latest work is that of an artist determined to go out an immortal. His career spanning record of brave choices has insured he succeeded in doing so.

      MJH

  8. Breakfast Guy says:

    Thank you Michael for an excellent tribute to our cultural hero. The sudden news of David Bowie falling hit me rather hard too. Same level of deep sadness and grief as when John Lennon was shot back in 1980… I was in my mid twenties at the time. Both are huge losses and I sadly miss both terribly.

    Like John, David Bowie stood behind, spoke up and acted on causes he believed in, as in this recent example — http://www.stereogum.com/1846087/david-bowie-bjork-thom-yorke-more-sign-letter-urging-climate-change-deal/news/

  9. Breakfast Guy:

    Thanks for the kind words. Bowie set a great example for all of us.

    MJH

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