Only David Bowie could perform as comfortably next to Bing Crosby or Freddie Mercury.
Only David Bowie could craft a folk rock anthem as well as a glam rock grinder or a minimalistic German dance song or a disco come on or an industrial rock political statement.
And following his death from cancer Sunday night, only David Bowie could unite generations of fans from the worlds of music, art, film, Broadway and practically every other creative field in a moment of reflection to marvel at what he accomplished in his 69 years and just how much he will be missed.
Almost everyone has a favorite Bowie incarnation — Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the smiling charmer from the “Modern Love” era, the hard-rocking front man of Tin Machine, the Thin White Duke, whose existence is forever tied to his Nassau Coliseum performance on the “Station to Station” tour in 1976, broadcast on FM stations across the country.
He liked them all, but was always looking forward to the next persona. He loved the ch-ch-changes and was always turned to face the strange.
“Certain experiences, like spiritual messages, float through your life,” Bowie told me in 2001. “Probably in the last year I have become more aware of that, not from a spiritual standpoint, really, but from the teachings. I have always followed some of the tenets of Buddhism, especially the one about change. What came from my Buddhist bumblings is that change is our river. I keep coming back to that, and it means an awful lot to me.”
Many call Bowie a chameleon, but that’s not true. He didn’t change to match his surroundings. He made his surroundings change to match him.
To the outside world, it seemed he was ready to make another change. Bowie had just released his 28th studio album, “Blackstar,” (ISO/Columbia) on Friday. It seemed like yet another experimental twist, combining jazz, harsh guitars and EDM beats. However, it was actually his goodbye.
“He made ‘Blackstar’ for us, his parting gift,” Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime collaborator and the producer of his final two albums, wrote on Facebook. “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of Art.”
In the video for his single “Lazarus,” released last week, Bowie sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” from what looked like a hospital bed, while his alter ego scribbled furiously at a desk. The video ends quietly, with Bowie’s alter ego tucking himself back into a closet — a quiet end to a career that had been filled with so much joyful noise.
It seems fitting, considering how quietly Bowie had lived in recent years, especially after a heart attack in 2004. He had, of course, already made his grandest statements on the world’s biggest stages, with a raucous, life-affirming set at Live Aid in 1985 and the heartbreaking, tender version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” he used to open the Concert for New York City following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He closed his set that night with “Heroes,” a combination of defiant optimism and brutal honesty that was pure Bowie, possibility tempered by reality. “We could be heroes,” he declared to the roaring crowd. Today, let’s just leave it at that.
The many faces of David Bowie
The astronaut from “Space Oddity” took on a life of his own, even though he seemingly dies at the end of Bowie’s breakthrough hit. Bowie refers to Major Tom in passing in his 1980 hit “Ashes to Ashes,” but it is Peter Schilling who continues the saga in the 1983 hit “Major Tom (Coming Home).”
A bisexual alien who was a messenger for extraterrestrials, Ziggy Stardust often sported a bright red Mohawk and a lightning bolt on his face. He delivered messages through glam rock hits like “Suffragette City” on 1972’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
After Ziggy Stardust “retired,” Aladdin Sane arrived as a more Americanized Ziggy, with a bit of schizophrenia to boot. Not surprisingly, the album “Aladdin Sane” became Bowie’s most successful American album to that point, aided by the hit “Jean Genie.”
THIN WHITE DUKE
The American R&B-embracing Thin White Duke, who started with Bowie’s “Young Americans” album, arrived in full force for the “Station to Station” album and tour, with hits like “Gold en Years” and “TVC15,” immortalized at a classic Nassau Coliseum performance.
‘SERIOUS MOONLIGHT’ BOWIE
This Bowie incarnation didn’t have a name, but he certainly had an image – the well-dressed star of a string of new wave videos and singles that hit hard at the American mainstream, including “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.”