“The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits. He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal, and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”
If they’re worth a shit, artists and their art change over time.
In that, David Bowie wasn’t unique.
Other artists in the relatively new art form of rock music undertook enormous, paradigmatic shifts with regards to their music and style in the ’60s: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys — I could continue, clearly. Everyone with ears knows the ’60s were a tumultuous time artistically.
What made — makes, still makes David Bowie unique is his consistent, constant transition.
David Bowie didn’t just change style every few years, every few albums: Within a single album, Bowie’s sound bounced from one genre to another. If you listen to any example from his classic period — from Hunky Dory to Lodger; the whole of the ’70s, for chrissake — you’re listening to transmissions of genius from a truly kaleidoscopic mind. Bowie was some musical sponge, soaking in everything he’d ever heard in his life and spewing out another godsend whenever he squeezed his brain to produce another record. Hell, you look at Ziggy Stardust, and you’ve got everything from proto-punk and arena rock to balladry and show tunes.
Again, here, he’s not unique. The Beatles did it. The Velvets did it, too.
But there’s just something about how Bowie did it. There just is an intangible power to how he approached his material. Something undeniably theatrical and literate, but without pretention or phoniness.
Looking back on what he produced, he ran a stylistic gamut, surely. You could cherry-pick influences or label a song as krautrock or blue-eyed funk or industrial jazz or whatever.
But then, there are the Bowie songs.
Like, what the fuck even is “Starman”?
I mean, if you’re lazy, call it glam rock. But Gary Glitter is glam rock. Gary Glitter can’t lick Bowie’s boot.
“Starman” in itself shows more stylistic turns than some musicians achieve in the course of their careers. Acoustic strumming of folk rock (but in unsettling major-sevenths, with the seventh as the root note!), funky drums and bass line skipping to the tense staccato piano and wah-wah guitar break, the baroque swell of strings — all of these elements meld together, pieced together into a cosmic aural mansion from rickety foundation to flourishing ornamentation. And then it all culminates together beneath one of the most transcendently beautiful guitar hooks of all time, with the addition of a perfectly understated, yet rough-’round-the-edges Les Paul chugging along on rhythm.
That’s a lot going on in one song, let alone one chorus.
And his voice...
Everyone calls Bowie the Chameleon of Rock-and-Roll. It’s easiest to point that out with regards to his personae and performance aesthetics. Of course, you can hear it in his music, too; without insulting your intelligence, that’s clearly been the point of this rambling thus far.
But David Bowie’s voice could change even quicker than his wardrobe.
The man held multitudes in his vocal cords: A deep, rich baritone to a screeching, scratching tenor and everything in between, with different colors and tessituras for any of his cast of tonal characters.
As much as Bowie had going for himself alone, he worked with brilliant collaborators, too.
He worked with one of his heroes, Lou Reed, to produce Reed’s mainstream breakout, Transformer — at least, as much as Reed really “broke into” the mainstream. “Fame,” Bowie’s first big hit in the United States, arose from a studio jam with John Lennon.
The Berlin Trilogy, composed of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, featured Brian Eno as producer and keyboard player, with luminaries like Robert Fripp and Iggy Pop popping in on different tracks. Likewise, Bowie produced Pop’s album The Idiot while both were in Berlin. “Under Pressure,” one of the greatest collaborations in rock history, came about during a debauched late-night session between Bowie and Queen front-god Freddie Mercury. Chic frontman Nile Rodgers produced Let’s Dance, a funky-as-fuck post-disco romper that’s (maybe not) surprisingly his best-selling album of all time. Trent Reznor composed a popular remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” off Bowie’s late-’90s industrial outing, Earthling, which wound up being more successful than the original. Bowie and Mick Jagger boned that one time.
The list goes on, and each entry intrigues me.
When you’re immensely famous in the music world, I guess you can play with anyone you want to. For example, look at how Paul McCartney collaborated with Michael Jackson or, more recently, Kanye.
Bowie, in a way, seemed to be paying tribute in his collaborations. He worked with the artists who directly influenced him or the ones he seemed to directly influence, or both. And that’s why his collaborations seem so vital and natural: Instead of grasping for relevance, he’s simply going with the flow while still staying true to his art.
That may be Bowie’s most impactful effect to me as a musician or a creative person in general: He played what he wanted to play. He looked how he wanted to look. He sang how he wanted to sing. And it didn’t matter if it was within one song or one album or one decade; the man just did what he could with everything he had absorbed. Moreover, he was never afraid of being the weird kid at the party; he embraced his oddity, and people loved and respected him for it. And he never stopped figuring out new ways to work it.
No matter how much his art transmogrified over the decades, David Bowie was always David Bowie.
I’m shaken in realizing there’s nothing next, three days after he released a new album. On his 69th birthday, no less.
He wasn’t done yet. He could’ve kept going.
Forever and ever.
Top photo: David Bowie, 1974, AVRO/Wikimedia Commons
Anthony Harrison is a journalist and editor from Greensboro, North Carolina. He currently writes a sports and leisure column for Triad City Beat, an alt-weekly newspaper. You can follow him onFacebook, Twitter, and his blog.