It’s easy to judge a legend by their victories, to look awestruck at their towering accomplishments and never think to look at what’s hiding in the shadows those glories cast. That’s the problem with trying to come to terms with a legend: We’re all looking at the same monuments and writing a thousand paeans, jeremiads, and elegies about them. There’s not much left to say about the triumphs; the hot take vultures and critical hyenas have already stripped all the good meats and fat off those bones. The failures, on the other hand … there’s still some nourishing marrow there if you’re willing to dig.
A case in point is our dearly departed Thin White Duke. It’s been a year since the Starman turned back into stardust, leaving behind a monumental body of work. It’s hard to overstate just how staggering David Bowie’s discography is. Few musicians could hope to leave such a long run of incredible records behind them. Not just great albums in their own right, but totems of entire scenes and subcultures. Bowie didn’t just write songs: He wrote style manuals and manifestos for living that people embodied as he tossed them aside. Most of us spent the last chunk of the 20th century wearing David Bowie’s hand-me-downs.
But what about the parts of Bowie that didn’t get adopted? What about the skins that he shed that we didn’t pick up afterward? What can his failures tell us about him? They can tell us everything. His great albums aren’t the proof we need that he was a fearless, restless creative spirit: his worst ones are.
Let’s look at the albums he made as Tin Machine. Released in 1989, Tin Machine was the weirdest pivot in a career defined by pivots. Bowie rejected solo artist status to form a band with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and brothers Hunt and Tony Sales. For the first time in his career, he was ceding full creative control to become an equal musical partner in a collective. For an artist who had been blazing his own trail for so long and already achieved so much success by trusting his own instincts, turning away from that to be “one of the boys” seemed like a quixotic ambition. Maybe even an impossible one: You can talk about democracy all you want, but who’s going to tell David Bowie what to do?
The proof is in the pudding: Tin Machine (1989) is obviously a team effort because it is too terrible to be the work of one mind. Tin Machine sounds like four people simultaneously shitting the bed in spectacular fashion. Bowie’s previous post-Let’s Dance albums Tonight and Never Let Me Down were also awful, but not like this.
If Bowie were a lesser man, he would have immediately disbanded Tin Machine after its crushing reception. He would have done what he’s always done and chameleon himself into a different form. Instead, he double-downed on Tin Machine, recording a second album, Tin Machine II (1991), that NOBODY wanted. Consider, for a moment, the purity of intent in an act like that. The sheer amount of fucks not given required to follow through with a follow-up to Tin Machine, when reason, good taste, and logic demands that you not do so. It boggles the mind.
Bowie was in the doghouse of relevancy after Let’s Dance and wasn’t really allowed to run around in the yard again until Outside came out. He spent a long stretch of the '80s watching people skyrocket to success off of musical and stylistic blueprints he'd tossed aside years ago. If culture was a foot-race, the man who had spent so many years in the lead suddenly found himself trailing to catch up. Who could have blamed him, if he had chosen to coast? If he had decided to bring back Ziggy Stardust for an '80s Resurrection Tour? Or put on his fascistic cokehead duds for another tour of duty as the Thin White Duke? The man could have transformed himself into a Greatest Hits Machine and basked in love, adulation, and filthy lucre. Instead, he turned himself into a Tin Machine. Given the alchemist’s choice between lead and gold, he chose lead. Even though the Tin Machine years weren’t a critical or commercial success, the experience seemed to revitalize Bowie. He credited his time with Gabrels and the Sales brothers as being the kickstart he needed to really experiment with his music again. Who knows if he would have taken as many risks as he did on Outside and Earthling if he hadn’t put himself through the Tin Machine crucible?
Looking back on Bowie, a year after his passing, the part about him I admire most isn't the chameleon, the pop genius, or the guy who busted MTV's balls for not featuring any black artists in their programming. What I admire most about him was his refusal to go backward, to always be moving forward – even if it meant falling off the occasional cliff. The Bowie I miss, the one whose absence makes the world a poorer place, is the one who said this to Trent Reznor before they went on tour together:
"You know, I'm not going to play what anybody wants me to play. I just finished a strange new album. And we're going to play some select cuts from a lot of Berlin trilogy-type
There he was, a man touring with a hugely popular band, who could have stolen NIN's thunder by playing all his hits. A man who could have used his association with a new band at the peak of their popularity to seize the limelight again. All he had to do was take a few steps back. Instead, he stepped out into the abyss. And kept on walking.