David Bowie was a legendary art hero, a hot tramp and an honorary young American and a true somebody person. He was a gifted actor who injected every role he played with flamboyant electricity, and he was always playing a role. He invented glam-rock and New Romanticism; he mimicked plastic soul and, more recently, plastic jazz; he pioneered a flexible, everlasting art-rock style that swallowed up any genre that dared to develop in its wake. He produced and tampered with albums by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Mott the Hoople; he subjected his own music to healthy tampering by Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers; he’s perhaps the only musician ever to have gotten ripped off by James Brown rather than vice versa; in the hip-hop era, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Vanilla Ice all sampled him. He timed the release of his new album, Blackstar, to his impending death from liver cancer, an illness he kept secret until the end — he was already receiving plenty of media attention for the release of Blackstar, by several accounts his best album since who knows when, and when he passed away three days later it was clear the album was intended as a parting gift to his fans. Who else but David Bowie would turn his own death into one final art project? And who but Bowie would do so in a way that wasn’t at all tasteless but generous and beautiful? Watch that man, oh honey watch that man.
The conventional wisdom on Bowie stresses his unpredictability, his inconstancy. A “chameleon,” he’s called, and indeed, especially in the ‘70s but really throughout his whole career, he was always changing up his act. Now he’s a new wave pinup idol, now he’s a glittery, androgynous sex panther, now he’s a weirdly conventional and hence utterly outrageous Philadelphia soul man. What’s more, these various musical reinventions went along with corresponding fantastical characters for Bowie to inhabit (with backstories, too!): the Laughing Gnome, the Man Who Sold the World, the Starman and/or Ziggy Stardust (whom Bowie casually murdered in “Rock & Roll Suicide”), Aladdin Sane, the Jean Genie, the Thin White Duke, Jareth the Goblin King (technically, Jareth is a film role, from 1986’s Labyrinth, which even more than 1976’s iconic The Man Who Fell to Earth or 1983’s Catherine Deneuve feature The Hunger stands as Bowie’s absolute triumph as an actor). Thus did Bowie pay tribute to entertainment itself while giving ideas like authenticity and expressionism the finger — by assuming mask after mask, style after style, he implicitly argued that all was performance, that everybody projects some sort of persona, that artifice is beautiful. That’s why he made such a convincing presence onscreen, and why the hagiography that inevitably follows a major celebrity death misses the point, as does any sort of biography, really: not only is our knowledge of Bowie the human being limited and unverified (just try tallying all the times his interviews contradict each other), it’s totally irrelevant. Bowie’s not a human being! He’s a scary monster, he’s a super creep, he’s a Martian, he’s the Mule. Anybody fixated on the “real” “David Bowie” is making certain assumptions about the consistency, validity, and existence of the internal self — assumptions that Bowie made it his mission to obliterate.
That said, there were unifying factors to his long, messy discography, not least among them his commitment to rock & roll. In the ‘70s he shifted around enough that it made sense to accuse him of musical disinterest, that there was good reason to doubt his credentials as a musician (rather than an artist whose medium happened to be music); in retrospect it’s clear that, in fact, very few of his contemporaries rocked out so compellingly, or so weirdly, or for so long. Some of Bowie’s poses were more brilliant than others, and several of his albums qualified as abject failures. But every one of his brazen triumphs mined variations on the same twisted, crunchy hard-rock style, a sharp, somewhat automated, immediate yet distanced yet hence even-more-immediate guitar crackle perfected on 1973’s brutally tough Aladdin Sane. Check the ferocious bluesy riffage powering “Cracked Actor,” the golden sparkly stomp casting confetti all over “Suffragette City,” even the circular funk guitar providing “Sound and Vision” with a melodic center — there’s no mistaking that relentless punch, that clinical expertise, that unparalleled balance between the two. Even at his most conventional, when he was most recognizable as “rock” (as on Aladdin Sane, 1980’s Scary Monsters, etc.) there’s something cold, something alienated about the very sound of the music, a flatness to the thrash, a deadpan affectlessness to the groove, a determination to just play the hooks and/or go through the motions. Rather than dulling the rock & roll, this mechanized approach somehow jacks up the energy to an unbelievable degree, so that the end result goes bang pop pow boom without canceling out its detached, hypnotic qualities. Add to this a choked, fiery, glittery guitar sound and you have the makings of a musical signature that, no matter how abused or bastardized it wound up after endless reconfigurations, somehow seemed to fit nearly every costume Bowie tried on.
There was one other thing every Bowie album had in common, and that was that they all featured the vocals of David Bowie, which Bowie lovers downplay, Bowie haters highlight, and I view as a strength. Quite simply, the man could not sing. He couldn’t project, sometimes he couldn’t even hit the expected notes, and although both Morrissey and Simon Le Bon are unimaginable without him, Bowie’s instrument is considerably ghastlier than either. On most of his upbeat rockers the melodies were simple enough that it didn’t matter, but even so his voice was pinched, its exaggerated Britishisms ugly rather than refined; when he thought it amusing to sing lounged-up torch songs, when he decided to croon like a French chanteur, when he slowed down the beat for any reason at all, the resulting gasps and screeches turned genuinely painful. And where Morrissey’s piercing, taut, equally painful voice served to express personal pain and speak for anybody (specifically misfit and likely gay adolescents, but really anybody) experiencing similar pain, Bowie couldn’t even manage that, perhaps because misfit adolescence was never his thing, perhaps because his tonsils permitted him even less expressive range. Yet although he switched personas too often to become a spokesman for any one fanbase/demographic, there are consistent, recognizable attributes to his voice that suggest the existence of a metapersona, one outrageous David Bowie character whose numerous changes were possibly more superficial than they appear. Definitely his voice sounds English, definitely it sounds arty, definitely it sounds campy and glamorous and sophisticated. So while Bowie’s audience includes legions of cerebral aesthetes more than happy to debate the pros and cons of his many incarnations, sundry media obsessives who value Bowie mainly for abstract intellectual reasons, I suspect that most Bowie fans respond initially and most keenly to the sound of his singing. Moreover, this is precisely due to everything that makes him a conventionally bad singer. Through his thin, strained harshness he’s simultaneously an average guy and the very model of a worldly English gentleman. Through his flat amateurishness he sounds like no one else on the planet, no matter how many imitators he inspired.
So as I get to know Blackstar in the coming weeks, I’ll also be playing my sentimental favorites, including but not limited to: 1983’s bestselling Nile Rodgers collaboration Let’s Dance, which masqueraded as a bland embrace of straight chart pop only to reveal such a move as his trickiest mask of all; 1973’s relatively underrated Aladdin Sane, which celebrates the aggression of Stonesy blues-rock while subverting that same aggression with sexual insecurity more gauche and fraught than anything Mick Jagger would ever admit to; and 1976’s mind-boggling Station to Station, the ultimate Bowie masterpiece: six long, spacey epics in which he crosses liquid funk with harsh protopunk so as to produce a cross-racial, polyrhythmic genre amalgam the likes of which nobody had approached before or ever will again, closing with a Johnny Mathis cover. “Wild is the Wind” is exactly the kind of song Bowie had no business singing. A slow, tender, florid love ballad, it nudges a singer toward all sorts of overstatement and mannerism (although Mathis’s original is magical), and boy does Bowie succumb to temptation — he lets his voicebox bleed all over the microphone, inserting all sorts of unnecessary quavers and whispers and melismata, and when the music drops out so he can bellow “Don’t you know you’re life… itself!!” he almost faints from the melodrama. By the end, once the jangly backup has reached peak intensity and he’s wailing his lungs out, somehow he’s turned it all into an utterly gorgeous and affecting vocal performance anyway. Mixing detachment and feeling in unpredictable proportions, daring to sing where an ordinary man with the same level of talent would have kept his mouth shut, leaving it totally unclear when he’s acting and when he’s being genuine, he uncovers astonishing vistas of previously undiscovered emotion.
Rest in peace, David Bowie. One magical moment, such is the stuff from where dreams are woven. One day, though it might as well be someday, you and I will rise up all the way, all because of what you are, the prettiest star.
Black Star (2016) is available from Amazon and other online retailers.