Hi all! I’m the new intern over at 33 1/3, here to bring you good taste and good vibes in 2016.
More than any other recently-deceased celebrity, David Bowie has been omnipresent in my world since his death on Monday. People I’ve known for years have avowed an appreciation for him I’d never known was there. Public figures have similarly come forward to disclose their histories with the icon, some commenting on the impact of his unparalleled body of work, others on the man himself and his generosity of spirit. Even as I write this, more are still coming forward to remember him. As someone for whom the music of Bowie was influential, this degree of collective mourning has been beneficial to my own grieving. Is there a gentler way of saying “misery loves company”? It’s like that.
Perhaps part of why Bowie’s passing has resonated with so many is because, during his too-brief 69 years, Bowie himself was many. Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke. During his fruitful 1970s Bowie exchanged personas like we might clothing, each new character presaging yet another brilliant reinvention. This omnivorousness extended beyond the realm of music. Some remember him best as a fashion symbol, others for memorable film roles like his turn as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. Almost all of us could take vicarious pleasure in the shaming a fictional Bowie delivered Ricky Gervais on Extras (if you haven’t yet, rejoice).
For my money, Bowie’s most satisfying act played out after the curtain began to lift. In 1977 Bowie decamped from his then-home Switzerland to Berlin, fleeing from his Thin White Duke guise and an increasing cocaine dependency. Such were the circumstances when Bowie recorded his landmark album Low, reportedly so named because of his “low” moods during studio sessions. The recording of Low coincided with two other critical factors: Bowie’s interest in soul music (previously explored on Young Americans and Station to Station) and his new Berlin locale, home to electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk and Neu!. These disparate styles clash brilliantly on Low. While ever an innovator, the album-length collision between human soul and machinery marks the moment where Bowie really struck out into unknown sonic territory.
Even more significant to Low, Berlin was still a city divided in 1977. The album’s bifurcated structure is intended to reflect this separation. Jaunty rock n’ rollers, with railcar-like percussion and infectious hooks, occupy its first half, and mournful ambient pieces its second. These latter works were Bowie’s first collaborations with producer Brian Eno, who would later go on to produce albums by the Talking Heads, U2 and Coldplay. Together, Bowie and Eno crafted four eerie instrumentals that conjured emotional impact via the evocative power of Bowie’s voice – on these songs, wordless cries into a textured void – rather than his wit. The two would repeat the partitioned layout on the subsequent, almost-as-good “Heroes,” a testament to its efficacy.
This is the David Bowie I most admired: the musician whose lexicon seemed to encompass all of recorded music. Listening to his final album Blackstar, I’m comforted by how that adventurous spirit was undiminished and stronger than ever in his last days. But reading statements from those he touched, I’m also comforted by the idea that his departure could leave a different kind of crater for others. These myriad reactions speak to Bowie’s interior multitudes. He was the rock star who made an album about rock n’ roll vacuousness (that still functions as a killer rock n’ roll album), the MTV darling who could also take the network to task for its dubious treatment of black artists. That dynamic plays out on Low. On the album, Bowie acknowledged how many things he could be at once.