The flood of tributes to David Bowie on social media was inescapable once the world surmised that the news of his passing was not some cruel hoax, the likes of which have already taken Morgan Freeman and Mickey Rourke from us numerous times already.
It did get you thinking though. Surely, if anyone had the resources to pull off a death hoax that brilliantly tied in with a morbid new album and then the potential to rebound back to life with a song called "Lazarus," it would be Bowie. But Bowie never cheapened his brand even when he was selling bonds of it. This was a guy who turned down knighthoods because it wasn't his life's work. That doesn't sound like a guy who would mar his life's work by making his death into a cheap sales gimmick, either.
Like Freddie Mercury, his singing partner on "Under Pressure," Bowie's final recordings were informed with the knowledge few people knew, that he would not be on this earth much longer, making his musical arc more deliberate than almost any other legend of his stature that was snuffed out unexpectedly.
Bowie's 2013 album The Next Day followed 10 years of radio silence, rumors of illness, and a 2004 heart attack onstage in Germany. That album seemed like a celebration of all his previous styles, a flexing of "I'm still here" muscles. As endings on a high note go, that would've been a fine enough last word and testament if Bowie had given in to the need to rest. But that job now falls to Blackstar, his final album, the definitive last master stroke of a great painter made even more incredible with the knowledge that he suffered six heart attacks while battling cancer to make it. Having just come out a few days ago, I suspect we will be picking it apart for months for hidden disclosures.
You can understand hordes mourning the passing of this great artist who left a sweeping body of work, but people seem to be taking this death harder and more personally than any rock star death in recent memory. Certainly anyone who ever felt like an alien in their social scene could point to Bowie in any number of his guises and find something with which to identify. But it was his ability to shape-shift and adapt a new persona that everyone probably will hold forever in their memories of the man, the hidden potential each of us has to do a complete 180 and confound the complacent among us.
That trait never tarnished, even when a slew of less innovative albums tumbled out of him in the ’80s and ’90s. Bowie fans never abandoned him; even punks greeted him as a liberator because that's what he was. So Black Tie White Noise was underwhelming. So what? There was always a promise he would reinvent himself again into something more compelling, something you'd have no trouble getting behind.
Now we've lost our generation's greatest quick-change artist, the template for Madonna, Lady Gaga, and a hundred of other acts of a low degree whose public didn't even follow them from one radical haircut to the next. For Bowie to die so suddenly defies description, probably makes him that much more like any of us than we ever imagined.
Here, for those of you who didn't have the the advantages of living too long and witnessing these first hand, are ten of his greatest turnarounds, made more incredible in an era where if you were a singer of quality songs, that's what you stayed until your work started to stink. Then you became a game show host. That's why we loved the man. Bowie always stayed Bowie, a constant work in progress.
1. From long haired mod to Anthony Newley wannabe (1964-1968)
Americans missed out on this period of Bowie's progress, when he blew sax in mod bands like The Mannish Boys and The Lower Third. The lack of success David Jones enjoyed in this early period is best demonstrated by the fact that he changed the name he'd been using professionally for three years in deference to Davy Jones of The Monkees. Soonafter becoming Bowie, he entered a weird phase that you could partially blame on Kenneth Pitt, his manager, who encouraged his young charge to pursue a career as a quasi-psychedelic cabaret entertainer. Once Ziggy played guitar and struck a chord with the public, Bowie would have to endure countless reissues of his 1967 substandard-but-still-fascinating Deram Record album and singles. And believe you me, no one was laughing less than Bowie himself when "The Laughing Gnome" rose to number six in the UK in 1973.
2. From all-around entertainer to Mime to Arts Lab hippie folksinger (1968-1969)
Once dropped from his Deram record deal, Bowie did a brief stint as a mime (opening up for Tyrannosaurus Rex and Humble Pie while getting lit cigarettes flicked at him from audiences that hated mimes even in the free love era). From there he strapped on a 12-stringed acoustic guitar and went the singer-songwriter route. Tellingly, only a song about an astronaut stranded in space caught the public's fancy. "Space Oddity" became a UK hit after the U.S. moon landing and belatedly drew similar support from spaced-out Americans in 1972.
3. From Veronica Lake lookalike to Ziggy Stardust (1970-1972)
Mercury Records, which unapologetically brought us the New York Dolls in 1973, were more wary of America's delicate sensibilities in 1970, when Bowie posed in a "man's dress" on the cover of the British release The Man Who Sold the World. Instead we got a painting of a cowboy in front of an insane asylum. Having done a publicity tour for that album in the man's dress, which Americans hadn't even seen on the record sleeve, Bowie must've appeared extra-terrestrial, a feeling he would impart to full effect when he thought of becoming a rock star from Mars. My first memory of actually seeing Bowie was a side-by-side comparison of Marc Bolan and David Bowie in a Tiger Beat magazine. Bolan, then riding high with "Bang-a Gong (Get It On)" seemed the heir apparent to Brit-rock supremacy, but his star would fade around the same time Bowie's eyebrows did. Americans also didn't get a proper hearing of his most androgynous anthem to date, the UK hit "John I'm Only Dancing," unless one routinely investigated b-sides for salvation.
4. From Ziggy to The Thin White Duke
You can't really count Aladdin Sane and Halloween Jack as separated personas from Mr. Stardust. The former was Ziggy on tour in America and the latter was Ziggy without the Spiders and no sense of fun. But midway through the dreary Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie decided he liked the sound of Philadelphia better than rats chewing on cats in Hunger City. This infusion of soul and disco into his music constituted the first real drastic change in Bowie's public personna with the release of Young Americans. A fortuitous pairing with John Lennon at these sessions led to his first number one hit with "Fame." He followed it up "Golden Years," which got him invited on Soul Train. Although Don Cornelius didn't say it at the time, he must've thought it — "This cat is heavy."
5. From Disco Soul Machne to German Art Rocker (1976-1979)
To the dismay of RCA Records, Bowie abandoned his lucrative disco phase to make a "triptych" of experimental albums with Brian Eno in West Berlin, albums that most of his reputation rests on to this day, despite Low, Heroes and Lodger not being commercial triumphs at their time of release. The first two collaborations had mostly instrumental sides to them, which made for interesting b-sides. One of my happiest Bowie memories will always be seeing a pizzeria empty out because some jukebox hero accidentally selected "Sense of Doubt."
6. From German recluse to French pantomime clown (1979)
Bowie wrapped up the ’70s reprising his Major Tom character and wearing more makeup than he had since 1974. This was when he dressed like a French pantomime character for his "Ashes to Ashes" video, up to then the most expensive music video ever made at a cost of 250,000 pounds. That was the hallmark of Scary Monsters, the album that forever would be the line in the sand for critics who wanted an album to point to whenever he returned to form.
7. From pantomime clown to toothless Baal (1980-1982)
Few people on these shores noticed when he portrayed Bertolt Brecht’s Baal in a BBC production which had him dressed in rags, plucking banjo, and sporting decrepit teeth. Once again, Bowie was ahead of the curve, predicting the look and sound of Dexy's Midnight Runners.
The non-commercial Baal EP was how Bowie chose to leave RCA Records to become an ’80s MTV star. No finer extended middle finger was ever given to a former label.
8. From "Let's Dance" playboy to flat faced Jenie (1983-1985)
Upon signing with EMI Records, Bowie entered his most commercial phase yet, churning out radio friendly dance hits like "Modern Love," "Let's Dance," and "China Girl." He tried to tweak his newfound popularity as a golden-haired pop idol with the "Jazzing for Blue Jean" longform music video. In it he played another fictitious rock star, Screaming Lord Byron, a guy who dressed like a genie. He did, however, wear makeup that drew exaggerated shadows on his face. Yay, everyone cheered, for the weird Bowie of old's return. Yet it was an effect that was neutralized when he appears in the rest of the video as some schlub with a bandaid on his nose and a Michael J. Fox haircut. Why was it so important that Bowie look and sound so normal in the Reagan ’80? Maybe it was to support other career moves, but for much of this period he did seem like a guy up on morals charges dressing like an upright citizen to fool a judge.
9. From Blue Jean to Glass Spider (1985-1987)
Things hit an all-time low with the misnamed Never Let Me Down album and the accompanying Glass Spider tour, where too many years at the popular kids' lunch table made it seem he couldn't even pull off his old Wizard of Odd role anymore. It is at this time he threw all his eccentricities into an acting career and reached its oddball zenith with Labyrinth, which looked as of he were auditioning for Old Deuteronomy in the musical Cats.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
10. Tin Machine (1988-1992)
For four years Bowie submerged himself in a democratic group and came up with his most cutting edge sounds in years. Yet for some strange reason, people didn't like seeing him play with Iggy's old rhythm section and Reeves Gabrels, who would wind up playing on Bowie's next seven albums. Time revealed Tin Machine a whole lot better than the footnote in Bowie's career they are accorded.
11. Elder Statesman (1993 - 2016)
From Black Tie White Noise on out, Bowie has played the role of elder rock statesman with occasional forays into weird-behavior territory, whether it was touring with Nine Inch Nails, one in which Bowie bravely refused to play any of his hits, or turning an album into an interactive game of Clue for Outside, the album where he reunited with Eno. With nothing left to prove, you could count on Bowie to send himself up as an insensitive rock star on Ricky Gervais' Extras or Zoolander. He never again would he adopt a new persona for an entire album, but he did appear as two different characters for a 1999 video game called Omikron. In it, he played a revolutionary and a singer in a fictitious rock band, two things he'd already done in the Spiders a long, long time ago. Rest in peace, David Bowie — man of words, man of music, man of 1,000 faces.