The Special Man

Well, the news in this corner of the world — a world that seems less strange and charming without David Bowie in it — is the same as it is all over. He had one last shock in him, and he kept us guessing until the end; I wish like anything it hadn’t happened, but there’s something so fitting about the way he went out. There’s nothing good about his death, but there are so many amazing things about the way he lived that it seems like that’s all we should really care about today.

As icons go, they do not come more iconic: every single aspect of his existence, from his demeanor to his sexuality to his fashion sense to his manner of speaking, was uniquely his, presented exactly as he wanted them to be received. He was that rare thing, so often valorized by the culture but so rarely seen, an entirely self-made man: he built his entire persona from the ground up, based on an irreproducible set of blueprints, forever evolving and visible only inside his head. He was restlessly, relentlessly creative, and kept coming back after he promised or threatened to go away — not because he owned a cash cow that needed milking, but because he could not rest without creating.

Bowie made missteps in his career; there is no sense in us denying it, because he never did.  But at every stage of his life, from the time he was a young crooner with an Anthony Newley fixation to the time he left us, having authored yet another chapter in his endlessly fascinating creative history, he was changing, transforming, becoming.  Consistency was never his hobgoblin.  By the time the mainstream pop world caught up to what he was doing at any given moment, he was already three steps ahead, to his next incarnation, in his mind if nowhere else — and his success, which was startling for someone whose greatest quality was being exceptionally odd, allowed him to make his constant re-imaginings of the self exist for everyone, not only for David Bowie.  Whether or not his motivations were selfish, he was astonishingly giving to the culture at large.

My stock line about David Bowie is that he, more than any other musician, owned the ’70s.  No other artist made such a wide-ranging and penetrating impact on the decade I grew up in than he did. But it is not just a question of his having done his best work in those years, though he certainly did; the streak of great albums he released from The Man Who Sold the World to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is possibly without peer in popular music.  But more than his own music, Bowie defined the decade for other performers:  through association and collaboration with him, people entirely brilliant on their own — Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, and others — were pushed to even greater heights, using the man as inspiration, provocation, raw material, muse, partner, and foil.  He left such an imprint on glam, British folk rock, pop, art rock, and Krautrock that his handiwork can be seen in almost every corner of the decade’s mainstream music.

And all that is completely leaving aside his impact in other areas.  He was an accomplished musician (who nonetheless knew when to delegate critical elements of his craft to more skillful and passionate players); a gifted songwriter (whose lyrics were inconsistent but capable of delivering phrases of transcendent beauty); a fashion icon (who both designed his own unforgettable looks and brought other, better designers into the public eye); a talented actor (who didn’t always choose the right parts, but when he did, could create performances of otherworldly power); and, perhaps most of all, a public figure of superhuman fascination. If we have to have celebrity for the sake of celebrity — and, apparently, we do — why can’t they all be like David Bowie?  When he was at the zenith of his drug-fueled paranoia, living on milk, hot peppers, and cocaine, he would rant about witches stealing his jism or Jimmy Page putting a Satanic curse on him, and everyone would just nod and say ‘seems reasonable’, because he was also making the best records of his entire career.

Bowie was the living, breathing, cross-dressing avatar of the concept of a Rock Star.  He lived it in public while maintaining a complex and difficult life of his own in private, and he made it all look so grand.  He certainly wasn’t the first person to embody the concept of the pop star as chameleon, forever self-actualizing into another self to inspire and provoke; Elvis Presley had a claim to it long before David Jones came along.  He also wasn’t the last, and that is one of his great triumphs.  But he was probably the best, making his public and private selves into ongoing chapters of a gaudy but surprisingly deep pulp novel in which the protagonist is a different person every page.  He saved people like me the trouble of arranging his life into phases and stages by doing it all himself; he knew he would be a series of personas, concepts, and commodities, so instead of letting them define him, he defined them, and became one of the most striking public figures of the last half-century.

I don’t normally put too much stock in the idea of celebrities as inspirational, motivational, or role-defining; that’s far too personal a thing to resonate across the borders of understanding between writers and readers.  But David Bowie has unquestionably left behind a legacy of allowing people to be almost supernaturally odd, and to feel good about it while they’re doing it.  Even when he was utterly miserable with the prison of fame and grandeur he created for himself, he seemed utterly confident that he could change the game and emerge as something different and strange.  He could be flashy and outré even in a plain black suit and white shirt, or he could be a painted, reptilian, gender-bent alien come to save the human race and seem utterly relatable.  He never fully embraced queerness, but he made defining sexuality on one’s own terms seem like the greatest thing in the world.  His work and image keep on echoing through modern music, and while he is not the final word in anything, performers ranging from Lady Gaga to Zola Jesus, from Vampire Weekend to Mica Levi, wouldn’t exist without him.  He is one of the true musical giants of our time, and I will miss him in that particularly painful way you miss someone whose presence you see, hear, and feel around you every day.

 

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