What do you say when an icon dies?
Honestly, I've been worrying about this lately. There were the early tragedies (John Lennon, Mama Cass, Keith Moon, Dennis Wilson) and then the too-soon deaths (George Harrison, Carl Wilson, Pete Quaife). But I know there's a time coming when the artists I grew up with, who formed my musical identity to the core, are going to be dying more and more often. They're reaching that age. (As am I.)
Well, here's a big one. David Bowie was 69, which depending on how old you yourself are, may seem either too soon or completely in the zone. He'd been sick, apparently for 18 months, though very few people knew. He deliberately kept it under wraps. But then, he was a master at keeping his real self under wraps.
To me, he was always the Guy Across the Room. Aloof, brilliant, unpredictable. He was never one of us, although -- and this is a big although -- he always keenly aware that we were watching. He built his career around surprising us, switching directions, jumping out way ahead of the artistic curve. A moving target. It was always a gamble, and yet he always somehow pulled it off.
The musical talent he possessed was huge. He wasn't the greatest singer, and had no flashy instrumental chops; he wasn't the tunesmith that Paul McCartney is, nor had he the genius for lyrics that Ray Davies does. And yet, working in a multitude of musical styles, without relying on Tin Pan Alley tricks, he created music you simply couldn't ignore or forget.
Added to this was his gift for intuiting the zeitgeist, the temper of his times, and moving the needle forward. His songs were built on a spider web of cultural references, both lyrical and musical, worthy of footnotes. They said something, though never directly -- no, you had to puzzle them out. Bowie songs required you to work a little -- but they were always worth it.
Perhaps his greatest talent, though, was simply Being Bowie. The whole public life was one great act of performance art. You got used to him popping up in the weirdest places, from The Man Who Fell to Earth to Labyrinth to Zoolander, from singing with Freddy Mercury to singing with Bing Crosby. In retrospect, every appearance was another stratagem on the great chess board. Ziggy Stardust became the Thin White Duke became Lazarus. It was all good.
As some of you know, I was already working on a Bowie tribute week to celebrate the release of Blackstar last Friday (Bowie's 69th birthday -- though surely he knew it would be his last).
Now I have to go back and listen to it all again with different ears.
Until then, here's something to ponder on. Maybe David Bowie didn't die -- maybe he just got the spaceship fixed at last and is now speeding back to his home planet...