David Bowie, Rock and Roll Chameleon Genius

He had crisp blue eyes, both of a slightly different hue after a childhood friend pierced one pupil with a fingernail during a fight, that could seduce any camera or crowd. He strutted all stages with a fierce lean mien under several forms and identities. His deep, cigarette-honed, intoxicating voice crooned during a tune before cracking unexpectedly into an otherworldly wail suggesting pain and playfulness that he kept from the public. He was a rock and roll legend and, like all good icons, he lived a sybaritic existence at times. Yet his musical accomplishments are worthy of our reverence and our accolades. For he worked more genres (glam rock, funk, folk, electronic, ambient, noise pop) in one lifetime than most artists can summon in a few years. And because his hold upon music and culture was so indomitable and without coeval, it seemed like he would live forever.

But David Bowie was mortal like the rest of us. Bowie, born David Robert Jones, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar. And the cultural landscape as we now know it, a cesspool of risk-averse careerism and lassitude and the foppish pursuit of social media likes and followers, now has a hole that is about the size of the 181 mile crater near the lunar south pole: one that will take more creative energy and several distinct unparalleled visions to fill.

One listens to Bowie’s early pre-Ziggy Stardust albums — the cautionary “Quicksand” and the playful “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory, the many explorations of insanity in The Man Who Sold the World — seeing Bowie’s formidable cognizance of the world’s many traps and contradictions (he made several attempts to adapt Orwell’s 1984) and a sui generis talent who quickly surveyed the land and decided very fast to play the game entirely on his own terms. And then there are the later tracks — the gender-bending pre-grunge “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger, “Rebel Rebel”‘s incredible guitar lick on Diamond Dogs (his most covered track), the groovy “Stay” from Station to Station (to say nothing of the delightful “TVC15” from that same album) — that showed Bowie’s incredible ability to stay ahead of even his savviest audiences. Career reinvention was very much Bowie’s career. And he understood this well before MTV latched its image-conscious talons into the music world. But this often came close to engulfing him.

Bowie’s post-glam performance as Labyrinth‘s Jared the Goblin King had a tremendous impact on YA authors and will undoubtedly be cited as a shining exemplar of his influence, but this admirable pillar seems woefully insufficient considered against the edgier and more iconoclastic personae that Bowie donned during the 1970s. He took on identities like a man who could never have a large enough wardrobe. Like Miles Davis, Bowie’s commitment to his alter egos was austerely physical and often took a very personal toll, as can been in the above 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, with a sullen, sniffing (all the coke) Bowie poking the carpet with an outsize cane. During the mid-1970s, Bowie lived on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk to sustain his Thin White Duke persona, who was a gelid and joyless man who wasn’t terribly pleasant to be around. The character was starkly Nietschean and often supported fascism, which matched Bowie’s return to Europe during the Station to Station years.

The albums stayed groundbreaking up to 1980’s Scary Monsters, which arrived with an innovative music video for “Ashes to Ashes” (seen above) that caused J.G. Ballard to remark how it was “like an extract from a surrealist movie.” But three years later, Bowie decided to cash in with a $17.5 million contract with EMI. He turned to Nile Rodgers instead of longtime producer Tony Visconti for a new album that signaled a more mainstream direction. Let’s Dance offered a respectable title single, one now relentlessly overplayed and one that cannot possibly sum up David Bowie at all, that gave the radio stations something relatively inoffensive to play (all of the lively work coming before that wasn’t “Changes” or “The Golden Years” seemed to be ignored by most DJs), but Bowie’s move towards lucre caused a severe damage to his long-standing relationship with Visconti (although the two would work together again on 2002’s Heathen).

Yet even Bowie’s shift to the mainstream couldn’t hinder the ever fertile Bowie from trying out experiments like 1997’s wonderful album Earthling (which came after Bowie toured with Trent Reznor) or Tin Machine, an underrated two album period in which Bowie took a more low-key frontman approach and shifted to a noisier sound.

But Bowie was at his best when he was driven by words and noise. Perhaps Bowie needed to sink in the quicksand of his thoughts in order to return as valiantly and as resiliently as he did. Bowie made changing your image look as easy as putting on a new pair of socks. If his life’s work can be likened to taking the complex and personally devastating and making it appear so simple, then David Bowie was an undeniable musical genius whose legacy we are only just starting to understand.


A Few Words on Lou Reed

“But if you think that you get kicks from flirting with danger / Danger, oooohh / just kick her in the head and rearrange her” — Lou Reed, “Wagon Wheel”

“What does Robert Christgau do in bed?” growled Lou Reed during a performance of “Walk on the Wild Side” on Take No Prisoners. “I mean, is he a toefucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer’s Guide to Rock. What a moron! ‘A Study’ by, you know, ‘Robert Christgau.’ Nice little boxes: B+. Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?” Christgau would later review the album, awarding it a C+ and thanking Reed for getting his name right. But Christgau apparently did more than that. He nominated Reed for a MacArthur Foundation grant, which Reed never received. Reed never forgot the early slights. When Christgau was introduced to Reed at a Sire luncheon, Reed sneered at Christgau when the critic offered his hand.

To dismiss Lou Reed as a mere irascible motherfucker, as Christgau did last night in his obituary for Spin, severely discounts the ferocious spirit that Reed took with him to the grave: an unapologetic artistic commitment, alive in all those great records, that is ever more in short supply in our conformist age of crowdsourcing, +1ing, and an unhealthy compunction to always be liked. Reed’s death was not strange in its police blotter statistics. 71 is a remarkable tally for a man who lived as hard as Reed did. But the great gaping cavity that has opened up is unquestionably weird. Some wailing mirror has squealed long and loud into the night, a force demanding new and dangerous innovation on all fronts.

What artist today name-checks Saul Bellow and Yeats on stage? Or calls for a full-scale sexual revolution while masterfully weaving in a tuba line? (That’s “Make Up,” from Reed’s solo album, Transformer.) How many lives did Reed save by singing about subjects that no one else did? And is there any performer today, one so artistically ahead of the curve and never flinching from experimentation, who can inspire a thousand musicians to start new bands with one new track?

Reed’s commitment to sparsity (“One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”) was such that he was able to write two of The Velvet Underground’s finest songs (“Heroin” and the magnificently raucous “Sister Ray”) without a bass guitar, paving the way for The White Stripes.

It’s possible that the chalky apocalyptic atmosphere of the early 1970s, fluctuating in the wake of crushed 1960s idealism, allowed Reed to do what he did. He was unquestionably aided in his early years by Andy Warhol, who spotted The Velvet Underground in the East Village, and Delmore Schwartz, who taught him at Syracuse University. Would Reed have found the courage to write “Heroin” without Schwartz? Would he still be toiling as a tunesmith for Pickwick if Warhol had not stopped by Café Bizarre with filmmaker Barbara Rubin and incorporated Reed’s band into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable? More than four decades later, Reed’s essence remains so indomitable that it’s easy to see him as someone who could have easily mowed down all resistance to his vision. But he needed eccentric and caring benefactors. And maybe that’s one truth we can take away from Reed’s passing in our crowdfunding age. Lou Reed is irreplaceable. But patience for the pugnacious innovators, for the scrappy workhorses toiling assiduously in odd corners, may be what we need to keep tomorrow’s culture as elastic and as indelible as Reed’s contributions.