I didn’t believe it when I saw it on my news feed, so I immediately brought up my Google search box to type in “Snopes David Bowie” and hit Go. However, before I’d even finished keying the word “Snopes”, Google kindly filled in the rest for me as the first option in the suggestions; apparently no one else believed it either. So this is one of those articles that is difficult to write because you never really thought you’d ever be sitting in front of a keypad trying to find the words for it.
I was too young to be aware of Bowie during his Glam Rock days. I only learned about Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Halloween Jack in retrospect, but enjoyed them just as much checking them out later. David Bowie had all the connotations of being “not for kids”, so while I certainly knew of him in passing– mostly from Chistmas specials, harmonizing with Bing Crosby or providing a narrative framework for The Snowman– I, like a great many kids of a certain age, actually discovered him through the medium of a little film called Labyrinth.
The Goblin King was the coolest, and hottest, guy that many of us 80’s babies had yet encountered, and I can’t even explain how much I wanted to be Sarah, in that incredible ginormous white masquerade dress, dancing to As the World Falls Down. It was a revelation. I’d heard him on the radio, of course (Let’s Dance, China Girl and Blue Jean had dominated the airwaves a couple of years before, when I was just getting to the age where the music you listened to began to matter), but Bowie is best enjoyed as an immersive experience, and his Jareth was definitely that. I’m not sure I’d call it a crush, but I was fascinated nonetheless and immediately set about filling the blanks with more of his work. I appropriated Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and David Live on 8-track(!) and subsequently wore all three tapes out.
David Bowie’s music career spanned five decades, and if there was one common stylistic element in his work, it was that there was no common element at all. He was at the forefront of the early Glam Rock movement, but easily transitioned to a more soul-based sound, to commercial synth pop, and even, with his band Tin Machine, a proto-grunge style. (Tin Machine is extremely underrated btw, and if you haven’t, you really ought to give it a listen.) His film work was equally eclectic, from the alien of The Man Who Fell to Earth to the POW of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, from a vampire victim in The Hunger to actual historical figures like Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ), Andy Warhol (Basquiat), and Nikola Tesla (The Prestige). For me, though, his defining role was that of Jareth the Goblin King, and if pressed for favorite songs I would have to pick the four transcendent ones from Labyrinth‘s soundtrack he performed (a fifth was sung by dancing Muppets).
Bowie was also known for collaboration, duetting with artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Mick Jagger, Queen, the Pat Metheny Group, and even Scarlett Johannson. He worked with countless others, garnering such prestigious backing vocalists as John Lennon and Luther Vandross, and contributing to projects with Mott the Hoople, Nine Inch Nails, the Arcade Fire, Massive Attack and Iggy Pop. Bowie’s music was featured prominently in Baz Luhrmann’s pop musical Moulin Rouge (including an epic, industrial-funk Beck cover of Diamond Dogs), John Hughes’s teen classic 16 Candles, Ralph Bakshi’s live action/animation hybrid Cool World, and over 400 other films and programs. He was also an accomplished Expressionist painter. Not even a triple threat, but a legitimate Renaissance man: singer, songwriter, actor, dancer, artist, designer, and even a sometime mime. He was a major human rights advocate as well, pressuring MTV to feature videos by black artists, drawing attention to the plight of Australia’s Aboriginal population, pioneering the redefinition of gender norms, and staging a concert at the Berlin Wall. He survived drug addiction and embraced sobriety. A devoted husband and parent, he was married to supermodel Iman in one of the longest and most stable celebrity relationships ever, and father to filmmaker Duncan Jones and young daughter Alexandria.
So how do you define David Bowie? He was so many things. An artist, a musician, a thespian, a family man. A symbol of rebellion, and one of recovery. A gender-bent icon, a legendary talent, the Patron Saint of Weird? A Goblin King, a Spaceman, a hero (for way, way more than just one day)? There are just too many things to remember him for.
Let’s just call him The Man Who Changed the World, drop the mic, and drop the curtain.