David Bowie: A shapeshifter whose genius survived every transformation

Singer’s constant reinvention of self invigorated 1970s pop, his mutability removing artistic limits

It’s hard to accept David Bowie’s death, and not just for the enormous musical loss that it represents.

Despite his health problems, both rumored and known in recent years, he seemed so alive artistically. The singer  — “icon”, “legend” and other such terms have been liberally used in coverage of his death — died of cancer just two days after releasing his 25th album “★” (Blackstar). The release date coincided with his 69th birthday.

It was a bold album and one that, in true Bowie style, saw him explore new ground — the title track mixing jazz solos with vocals that border on Gregorian chant.

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.

Bowie was worthy of Duke Ellington’s highest praise for art: “beyond category.” It is impossible to give a proper overview of Bowie’s career. It was held together by his physical body, of which we are now bereft. You can access it only by entering one of a series of streams — the glam period of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” through “Diamond Dogs” or the bracing minimalism of his Berlin-era triptych, “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger,” all the while marveling that the same man produced that yelping tenor or baritone croon. As an architect of melody, Bowie was at once accessible and obtuse. As a lyricist, he could be confessional and abstract, by turns.

You could focus instead on his acting career, from 1969’s short “The Image” to his Broadway portrayal of John Merrick in “The Elephant Man” to his fey portrait of Andy Warhol in “Basquiat,” taking in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners” along the way.

It would be worth it also to wade into the career-making albums Bowie produced for other people. The Bowie-penned single “All the Young Dudes” revived Mott the Hoople’s career. Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” features the marvelous bombast of “Lust for Life.” Lou Reed’s “Transformer” contains perhaps his two most celebrated solo offerings, “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” All were guided by Bowie’s hand.

All these strategies are necessary to understand Bowie’s cultural effect. None, by itself, is definitive.

In the end, Bowie controlled even his own death, at least artistically. Producer and collaborator Tony Visconti confirmed that “Blackstar” was intended as a “parting gift” for Bowie fans. “Look up here, I’m in heaven” Bowie sings on a song, “Lazarus,” named after the biblical character raised from the dead. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.” “Blackstar” is the first Bowie album not to feature his image on the cover.

Tributes have poured in from stars of today and collaborators of old. But perhaps the words of Brian Eno, the former Roxy Music keyboardist who went on to produce Bowie’s Berlin-era albums, best do justice to the sense of loss that Bowie’s loss has elicited:

David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him. I feel a huge gap now. We knew each other for over 40 years, in a friendship that was always tinged by echoes of Pete and Dud [a reference to characters played by British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore]. Over the last few years — with him living in New York and me in London — our connection was by email. We signed off with invented names: Some of his were Mr. Showbiz, Milton Keynes, Rhoda Borrocks and the Duke of Ear. I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: “Thank you for our good times, Brian. They will never rot.” And it was signed “Dawn.” I realize now he was saying goodbye.

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