News of David Bowie’s death would have been less surprising during the decade-long silence between his 2003 album, Reality, and 2013’s The Next Day. Then, articles worrying about his health were regularly published. In 2011 the American psychedelic band The Flaming Lips even released a song entitled Is David Bowie Dying?
Lately, however, Bowie had seemed rejuvenated, following the acclaimed The Next Day with the wild, jazzy Blackstar, his 25th studio album, just two days ago. It even has a song called Lazarus, and its daring flourishes suggested resurrection, not demise.
The real story was very different to the one presented to the outside world, as was ever the case in a career that confounded at every stage. The casual observer picturing Bowie might think of the red spikes, future garb and make-up of his Ziggy Stardust persona, claiming to be retiring at the peak of his fame on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1974. Or his shaking up of rock culture in a 1972 interview by claiming that he was “gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones”. Later he would defy expectation with less success, forming the heavy rock quartet Tin Machine in the late Eighties, and paying tribute to the drum and bass scene in 1997 with his Earthling album.
His early career should encourage current bands who fall victim to an impatient music industry when they don’t succeed in an instant. He underwent a surname change, employed various backing bands including The King Bees, The Manish Boys and The Lower Third and his first hit was a ridiculous novelty, The Laughing Gnome, in 1967. Even his second success, Space Oddity, though its cold futuristic feel would set the tone for much of his later work, looked initially like merely a one-off winner. He wouldn’t reach the top 10 again until Starman three years later.
That was the beginning for Bowie of a decade in which he was without peer, becoming the dominant musical face of the Seventies in the way that Michael Jackson would in the Eighties. His union of creative daring and commercial success in that period continues to be mix that every smart musician desires. His classic 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, saw his powerful sound reach a pinnacle with the help of guitarist Mick Ronson, and his concepts coalesce in the image of an androgynous star playing rock and roll at the end of the world.
Its success was followed by three UK number one albums in a row – the glam rocking thriller Aladdin Sane, the surprisingly backwards-looking Sixties cover versions of Pin Ups and then Diamond Dogs, a concept album inspired by Orwell’s 1984. At this point it seemed like he could tackle anything, from the glossy soul of 1975’s Young Americans (including a meeting of giants in the John Lennon duet Fame) to reinventing rock once again with the late Seventies Berlin Trilogy of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. Although long-term collaborator Tony Visconti would stay in the producer’s chair until Scary Monsters in 1980, now the electronic soundscapes of Brian Eno were the main ingredient.
Visconti’s absence between 1980 and the well-received Heathen in 2002 provides convenient bookmarks to depict a less confident Bowie, who appeared to be chasing trends during those two decades rather then setting them. In this century he assumed a more conventional elder statesman role, curating the Southbank’s prestigious Meltdown Festival in 2002 and being the subject of a large scale exhibition at the V&A in 2013.
Musically though, on The Next Day and now Blackstar, he had sounded fearless once again. Unless this genius can find a way to make death just one more career reinvention, it is hard to accept that the final chapter has been written in one of rock’s greatest stories.