Starman In The Sky: A Reflection on David Bowie

15 Jan

Stewart here…

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With the death of David Bowie late Sunday, I probably had the same reaction a lot of people who started to learn about it over that Monday morning: that of shock. Literally a few days earlier, he had a new album, Blackstar, come out. And in retrospect, hearing the album before his death was announced, there was a sense of reflection that seemed to portend to what was about to be reported. And when watching the video for one of the songs off the album, “Lazarus”, not long after the news hit, it was like a tragic foreshadowing. But then again, a lot of final albums from great artists always take on a morbid feel if that artist dies not long afterwards (just look at Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon).

But there was something surprising to hear of David Bowie’s death from cancer, because he seemed almost otherworldly from the time I become aware of him. That such a disease claimed him seemed such a normal, human way to go. The man who was Ziggy Stardust is gone that way? For me and my parents’ generation, he was almost a alien chameleon, changing with the times and adapting new types of music.

I was listening to a relatively recent playlist I made of his music over the years, and realized how hard it was to pin down a style to him. The artist who made Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars doesn’t sound like the one who made Let’s Dance. The artist who made Young Americans doesn’t sound like the artist who made Blackstar. He’s never stayed in one mode for very long, which can often be hard for regular listeners to pin down. Whereas bands and artists who have lasted as long like the Rolling Stones or AC/DC seem to be almost too easily identifiable between their old and new work, Bowie’s voice was the only real constant in the many variations of music he pursued over the years.
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Just as a musician and an entertainer taking on different visages (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane) would be enough, but he would apply that to movies as well. The closest correlation between his on-stage persona and a movie role would likely be his first major film role in the 1976 psychedelic Sci-Fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell to Earth. Playing an tortured alien who felt out of place in the movie seemed to fit with him at that particular time, when he was dealing with the same kind of issues. Only in Man Who Fell To Earth, he could make that feeling of hiding yourself more literal, as his character of Thomas Jerome Newton was an alien literally disguising himself in the visage of a human being.

And looking at his film roles, he would go from playing Nikola Tesla in The Prestige to the Goblin King in Labyrinth (certainly a favorite among the NerdLush crew) to a normal military officer (albeit with tinges of homosexuality) in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence like nothing. One minute he could play a brooding vampire in The Hunger, the next, having fun parodying himself in Zoolander. With musicians, being able to give a performance is one thing, but to give that performance emotional depth like actors have to is another. Bowie did both.

There’s something almost satisfying in seeing how his music, made for (like Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners) and sometimes just dropped into movies, have become great movie moments. Yes, he made the cool theme song for the 80’s remake of Cat People, but who would have expected it to pop up successfully years later as part of Quentin Tarantino’s WWII bloody fantasy Inglourious Basterds? Even recently, hearing the wonderful “Starman” in that montage in The Martian was a great moment in 2015 cinema. He even inspired TV shows with songs as their titles, like Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

What he brought was a comfort to the abnormal people out there. You had an icon to look up to as someone who went their own way, and somehow, despite the critics of such an artist pushing against the normal, brought everyone else with him. Even when he dabbled in the more commercial pop music of the 80’s, he did it in his own unique way. It’s a rare feat you just have to give respect for.

And the takeaway I have of Bowie is what an influence he was on almost 50 years of weirdos and outcasts. He was not afraid to experiment with music, to try new challenging things, to not be in a safe zone. Imagine a cultural and musical landscape over the last forty odd years that didn’t have Bowie in it. Where would the Madonnas and Lady Gagas of the world be without him? It’s almost impossible to fathom how if he wasn’t there to help create it, we would have to create someone like Bowie to make that happen.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to. David Bowie was here, and he left one hell of a mark on the world.

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