I was gutted by the news shared by playwright/producer Jeff Cohen as he and I walked our dogs in Riverside Park early this morning. The Thin White Duke was no more. I struggled to understand the implications of losing a music hero. Rushing home, resigned to reality, I watched his two new videos, the one above and the album's title track which I featured on this website last week, both from his 28th studio album, ★(Blackstar), released this past week on January 8th, 2016, the date of Bowie's 69th birthday. As I watched "Lazarus" again, it all made sense.
"Lazarus" is clearly Bowie's epitaph, his final prophetic performance on this mortal coil...
"Look up here / I'm in heavenI've got scars that can't be seenI've got drama that can't be stolenEverybody knows me now..."
The coins on his eyes, the pallor of his skin, his frail body wrapped in a fashionalbe shroud. He clearly didn't allow the cancer that would claim his life after an 18-month battle to win in the end. He used it to inspire one last great work of art. Originating from Greek tradition, placing coins on the mouth or eyes of the dead was done so that the person could pay Charon, the ferryman, to row them to other side. The imagery and the poignant lyrics made even more haunting knowing that David acknowledged that his end was near.
Bowie was the ultimate chameleon, able to adapt new styles of music, theater or fashion and transform/transcend his own persona time and time again -- and in doing so, inspire a legion of imitators that so wanted to be just like him. Mott the Hoople never could have reached critical mass in the U.S. without Bowie's song "All the Young Dudes" and his production of the album with the same title. (For me and my music friends, this was one of the anthems of our youth.) Lou Reed's Transformer was produced by Bowie and remains one of his greatest solo efforts. Iggy Pop might have languished in rock fringe obscurity if not for Bowie collaborating with him on Raw Power. And there certainly would have been no "Lust for Life" without Sir David! Eno helped shape his "Berlin trilogy" -- Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. Mark Mothersbaugh once told me that Bowie had offered to produce Devo's first album, Are We Not Men, too. I've wondered what that collaboration might have produced. Eno ultimately did.
In business he was equally inspiring. Back in 1997 he was one of the first musicians to issue bonds against his future income. In doing so, he was able to raise revenue upfront instead of waiting on backend royalties that could take years to recoup. Yes, he was smart to have owned his own music publishing, as it was reported to be worth more than 100 million dollars!
For me, there are only a handful of rock 'n' rollers, or for that matter performers, who informed my artistic psyche and sensibilities growing up in Akron, Ohio in the early '70s. David Bowie may have been the biggest. (Certainly he, Sinatra, and Elvis were in a class all their own.) I bought every album and then bought them again when they were issued on CD, and then again when they were re-released first on Ryko and yet again a few years later on Virgin, and then again when certain titles were released as remastered "anniversary" editions.
His music was/is literally a soundtrack to my life.
Our legendary FM rock station WMMS help "break" his music in States. (Ditto for Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople, T. Rex, and countless others.) The launch of his very first U.S. tour in 1972 was held at the Music Hall in Cleveland, just up the road from us in Akron, Ohio. My first heavy petting session with a buxom, nubile classmate occurred while side one of Ziggy Stardust blasted in the background at some forgettable house party during my junior year of high school. It was intoxicating music -- sexy, daring, a tad dangerous in its androgyny. Macho guys didn't know how to relate to Bowie on some levels, but on a primal music level they recognized the importance of his music. Among the freaks and geeks that I hung out with, he could inspire envy and inspiration in both genders regardless of one's sexual proclivities. Bowie was a rock 'n' roll guru, often imitated and tested, but never bested. I even bought my first pair of platform shoes and Landlubber bellbottom jeans because of his glam-rock persona. Oh, the humanity of ridicule I endured when I wore them to school on Friday "jeans" day. Scandalous for anyone, let alone a football player with a blond Bowie-like feather haircut.
He certainly helped prepare my move to New York after graduating from college in 1981. I met performance artists Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi in Akron at a June 6th, 1980 concert at The Bank months after seeing them carry David out on stage and sing background vocals during Bowie's classic performance of "The Man Who Sold the World" on Saturday Night Live, December 15th, 1979. Joey would ultimately befriend me soon after moving to New York when I met him again at the hipster boutique Fiorucci on East 59th.
In early 1993, while I was editor-in-chief of the rock periodical Creem magazine, Angela Bowie, ex-wife of David, contributed an editorial on misogyny and the invasion of privacy. She was promoting her memoir Backstage Passes about her "life on the wild side with David Bowie." I'm not sure if her ex-husband ever read the article or her book, but I hoped that he was at least a fan of the magazine as he'd been featured in it many times through the years. (Here's a wonderful interview with David by Cameron Crowe for Creem in 1976.)
When I started playing music full-time, I taught my cello-driven quartet GIANTfingers "Andy Warhol" from my favorite Bowie album, Hunky Dory. I even met his longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti at a NARAS mastering clinic and shared my enthusiasm for my favorite Tony Visconti-produced album. Unfortunately, as he reminded me, he did not produce that album. I shrunk to size of a mouse in that moment of embarrassment. How could I be so stupid? Of course, Ken Scott produced it. It was my ultimate Bowie fan faux pas!
All of my years as a journalist and podcaster I never was fortunate enough to interview Bowie, but in 2005 I did have the opportunity to interview Mr. Visconti. It was conducted for this website at the Apple store in Soho. During said interview, (listen to podcast) Tony played a never-before-heard demo version of David's cover of "Cactus" by Frank Black and The Pixies, a song featuring Bowie on every instrument. The song was ultimately recut with a band and released on the Visconti-produced album Heathen in 2002.
Back in October 2002, in what was dubbed the "New York City Marathon Tour," he performed concerts in every borough of New York City over the course of five days. My wife and I were lucky enough to witness his majesty at my favorite concert venue, the Beacon Theatre on upper Broadway. The show was sold out, but we lucked out on two standing-room-only tickets. We ended up standing next to Bowie's stunning wife Iman and Iman's mother, Marian Abdulmajid, while he masterfully commanded the stage from start to finish. It remains one of my favorite concerts, ever. Occasionally I'd sneak a peak at his wife and mother-in-law, who beamed in support of the master at the height of his career, performing without peer, satiating us mere mortals. We would catch him again on this Reality tour at Madison Square Garden. Mesmerizing yet again on the most celebrated arena stage in the world.
Today I emailed Tony Visconti's manager for a quote from him. I received this beautiful and poignant statement that really says it all:
"David always did it his way and his way was the least obvious way. He was a true genius who proved it over and over again through groundbreaking albums. I co-produced his new album Blackstar. He sang with powerful energy and determination, his performances were brilliant. He will live forever in our hearts, mine especially."
"Is their life on Mars?" Bowie once crooned. (Even Barbara Streisand once posed the question, one of my favorite Bowie interpretations. And yes, Abba covered it, too.) I believe he knew the answer, as he was the ultimate spaceman on Earth. He is, alas, on his next adventure, paving the way for all of us, and leaving one final parting gift for Charon with his last masterwork, ★(Blackstar).