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Being David Bowie

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.