David Bowie Showed Us All It Was Okay to Be Yourself

Today is the third anniversary of David Bowie's death. To honor his legacy, we're republishing our favorite Bowie-related stories. This article was originally posted on January 12, 2016. 

My first inkling that David Bowie was cool came from my mother, Diana.

She would turn up Bowie songs when they came on the radio. Growing up, there were certain artists I took notice of because of how my parents reacted to them, and Bowie was one of them. In fact, I still have my dad's copy of Ziggy Stardust, which found its way into my own collection when I moved out of his house during high school.

Born David Jones on January 8, 1947, he grew up in Brixton, South London, the Bromley, but he was no Monkee, so he took the surname of Jim Bowie, American frontiersman and later expatriate. In 1972 he became Ziggy Stardust, who morphed into Aladdin Sane, and a long line of imagery began.

The androgynous nature of his early characters was fueled by bold statements in the press and a style uniquely his own, somewhere between rock god, Martian, and drag queen. No matter how the outside package could be perceived, there was never any doubt about the breadth of the talent within the man himself. He could challenge the very existence of God one minute and reinforce the faith of a true believer the next. He had the voice of an angel but wrote songs with the precision of a neuroscientist.

Bowie was, and will always be, transcendent. To learn of his passing yesterday morning, after an apparent 18-month battle with cancer, was a stunner. At 69, he had just released what will be his final album, Blackstar, unless there was more he was not telling us about in his final years. I hope there is more to reveal now that he's gone. I can't believe the Thin White Duke is dead.

As I think of him, I'm reminded of those Russian nesting dolls, which open to reveal another, then another, and so on. Bowie's career was like these dolls. Every time you thought you had him figured out, there was another layer, another record to discover, another phase of his constant evolution. He showed us all it was okay to try different things or discover new sides of yourself. Without him, what a blow to the creative palette of rock 'n' roll.

Bowie pushed the envelope and nurtured his fellow envelope pushers. Sometimes, he failed spectacularly, only to eventually be revealed as a vanguard of cool, of taste, and of vision when the rest of us finally caught up. So many artists (hell, genres) that I love — punks, goths, new wavers, no wavers, acolytes of grunge, indie rockers — they all would have had a much tougher row to hoe without David Bowie, if they had the gumption to hoe at all. Who else had the power to make Bing Crosby seem utterly cool to a bunch of punks, mods, and rockers?

As a member of the first generation of MTV fans, I had a front-row seat to the amazing visual artist Bowie had already become when music videos began to rule cable TV. Sure, there were some misses. None of us will ever truly exorcise the image of him and Mick Jagger cavorting ridiculously in the video for "Dancing in the Streets" from our memory, but do we really want to? As wonderful as the melancholy and brooding Bowie material is, there is no denying his remarkable sense of joy and devilish sense of humor.

One of my favorite moments of relatively recent Bowie is his hilarious guest appearance on Ricky Gervais' HBO show, Extras. Gervais' character seemingly finally has finally it in show business, only to have Bowie completely shred him in song while Gervais struggles to maintain any sense of composure while trying to prove he belongs in a VIP area of a London club. The twinkle in Bowie's beautifully discordant eyes while he charmingly maims Gervais' ego is a little too revealing, as if he is in on three jokes instead of one. 

Bowie continually used video and film to show us a new way of looking at him. I think, ultimately, Bowie wanted acceptance the same way the rest of want it: Genuine, continual, and for the right reasons. He was a man, after all. Apparently just flesh and blood like the rest of us, although it is difficult to fathom when you picture his character in Labyrinth, the Goblin King, Jareth, or Thomas Jerome Newton of The Man Who Fell to Earth. Unfortunately, I am more reminded now of John Blaylock, the forsaken husband of a vampire Bowie portrayed in the 1983 film, The Hunger.

I will always love his music. "Fame," "Suffragette City," TVC15," "Absolute Beginners," fucking "Heroes," and the list goes on and on. There is a reason there are about 100 songs of his on one of my Spotify playlists. He was not without his character flaws. But whether it was a full band behind him or just he and his acoustic guitar, David Bowie was (and, sadly, I'm only realizing this now that he his truly gone) the greatest solo artist in rock 'n' roll history. His body of work trumps anything Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, or any of the other "Kings" and "Queens" have ever done, even if record sales say otherwise. 

David Bowie was both trendsetter and trend-smasher. He took the archetype laid down by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and turned it on its collective ear by channeling his ever growing collection of personas to bend psychedelia to glam to what would ultimately become the most modern rock of all. He championed artists like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, underground icons of their own merit, and enveloped their essence without blatantly ripping them off. Luckily for us, their mutual appreciation inspired some of the greatest music of the '70s and '80s from all three, even if their partnerships were fleeting. When the world began to accept the wild look of new wave, he zigged when the rest of us zagged, put on a suit and tie, and reminded us that beneath it all, rock 'n' roll can also be classically stylish, even if it was more civilized than perfectly civil. More than anything, I think I will miss the idea that with Bowie, you never knew what he would come up with next. 

I watched his video for the song "Lazarus" this morning after hearing the news and realized he was saying goodbye. Farewell, David. You were well-loved and respected, and you were the man.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon