Bowie’s career was always defined by courage, perseverance, strangeness and absolute artistic mastery. He combined the largely separate concepts of rock and theater, male and female, truth and artifice.
He also had an unerring eye for fashion, both musical and visual, incorporating it into a succession of ever-evolving identities and albums. “Turn and face the strange,” he sang on 1971 song “Changes.” It was a credo to which his musical evolution clung.
David Bowie embraced the alien. He described the other as one of us. He brought the outsider in. For those who grew up with him as a cultural avatar, his loss is as awful and strange as being able to touch your own marrow.
Much is made of Bowie’s less-than-successful early career — a mime one minute and a mod the next — but the man was always heading in the same, sublime direction. It was a trajectory initiated in the beginning of the 20th century by Marlene Dietrich’s deft androgyny and Kurt Weil’s simple melodies but dissonant arrangements in “The Threepenny Opera.”
You can see contemporary inspiration in the emotionally distant baritone and studied moves of Scott Walker. You can hear aspects presaged in the junkie reportage of the Velvet Underground. Bowie devoured it all, came to understand the power of movement and character and, by the end of the 1960s, attained his great ambition of stardom with “Space Oddity.” Released less than a week before the Apollo 11 launch, the song reached the top five in the U.K.
In “Space Oddity,” Bowie plays the doomed astronaut Major Tom. In the coming decade, he would move — rapidly and with great success — from one character to another. In a whirl of reinvention after initial success, Bowie became first Ziggy Stardust and then Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. The Ziggy character would be as damaging to Bowie the person as it was catalytic to his career.
“I read recently that [Ziggy Stardust] was investigative journalism taken to its extreme,” he said in an interview from 1978. “That I wanted to find out what a superstar goes through, and so I had to create one and make one.”
“Everything I’ve written up until the last couple of albums were characters and their environments,” Bowie went on. “And I took the whole thing through — onstage and in interviews and photographs and dress and everything. Every time I changed a character, I would become that character, for the duration of that album.”
Those characters nearly killed him — Bowie’s cocaine addiction in the 1970s was as emblematic of the decade as was his music — but his mutability removed almost any artistic limit. In the 1970s alone, Bowie adapted, defined or presaged glam rock, Philadelphia funk and Krautrock. You can’t listen to the ferocious delivery of 1972’s “Hang Onto Yourself” without hearing what people would later call punk.
He collaborated with artists and producers on whom others would hang their careers — Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name just a few of the guitarists — only to move on, driven by the new, the unexplored.