The man sounds serious, that’s the first thing. Listen to Mick Ronson’s opening chord on Moonage Daydream, followed by the sound of Bowie’s voice coming in: “I’m an alligator,” he announces, in a grown-up voice that could credibly belong to, well, an alligator. There’s a little leather in it. You can’t help noting the parallel with how the Beatles start A Hard Day’s Night: a clear opening chord, a very brief pause, then a vocal that demands your attention. But while the Beatles emit unrestrained joy, the sound of the school doors swinging open at the start of summer vacation, an instant of anticipation before the bell rings and everyone rushes down the stairs into a world of vivid color, Bowie hits you in a worldlier way. You rush down the school steps, yes, but then your best friend’s older brother, the one who graduated three years ago, or was it four, grabs you, not roughly but with a force you can’t ignore, and pushes you up against the wall. Stand back here with me a minute, kid. Look around, take it all in, all of it. See what it’s really like out here. Serious stuff: even the moonlight in Bowie’s universe is serious. In Under Pressure, he sings of the terror of knowing what this world is about, and you can hear that terror across his work, from the very beginning all the way through to today. Listen to Space Oddity. Listen to Low (I’ve been breaking glass in your room again!). Listen to Ashes to Ashes. Listen, yes, to Blackstar.
Perhaps this is presumptuous, but I’m almost certain that you never knew until this past week how much you, and everyone else, loved Bowie. Within a day of hearing he was gone, I had established a routine. Every few hours, I would look for more tributes on Facebook: posts from friends, links to essays, appreciations from his fellow musicians, stories of chance encounters, all it resonating more than I had expected. The personal stories were genuinely moving, not corny. The musical appreciations were thoughtful and meaningful. Appreciating Bowie, appreciating each other for the shared feelings, appreciating the world more for having given rise to him, the communal mourning had a tangible sense of pride and purpose. All his children used it, all his children lost it, all his children boogied. It is plausible to think we will have a Best Bowie Tribute Pieces collection in bookstores by Christmas. And yet: his children? Really? Did he really mean so much, and why hadn’t we realized it before?
Bowie was always there, with that voice. When I first started listening to the radio, as a kid at the start of the 80’s, his entire 70’s output was in heavy rotation on every station in Boston I would tune to. Those were rock stations that played everything: oldies and classic rock (50’s and 60’s), punk and new wave, heavy metal, prog rock, singer-songwriters, soul, R&B, early rap, comedy records… and Bowie, a genre unto himself, and yet somehow connected to them all. Boys keep swinging all over in their musical tastes, with one artist or another thrilling you in any given week, but you always knew Bowie was outside all of that, more solid than the rest. He might sing about a brand new dance, but he never was one.
It’s surprising in a way that Bowie never seemed trendy, because he worked across such a range of musical styles. But what he achieved, more than any artist I know, is a genuine synthesis of all the types of music he touched. Somehow, you were always aware of the whole picture. Even the Beatles never quite managed that trick: in the moment when A Day in the Life was enveloping you, you weren’t harking back to It Won’t be Long. But somehow when you heard Let’s Dance, you were still conscious somehow of Young Americans, and Rebel Rebel, and Ziggy Stardust too. I still don’t know how he did that. Music is so powerful emotionally that it’s supposed to be reductive: you know a song really works when it makes you believe, in the moment when you hear it, that the song, just the notes you’re hearing, right here, right now, is the only thing that matters. Bowie’s special talent was that he could pack so much into that moment. It was his range, yes, but also his genius for synthesis and encapsulation. When you heard a Bowie song, and felt that this is all that matters, what you understood by this was especially rich.
The lyrical content of those moments mattered just as much as the music. Bowie was broader than the rest here too: he covered more themes than the other artists on the radio. When you listened to him, you heard about space, you heard about Nixon, you heard about the Berlin wall, and you heard about love and loss and yearning too, and time and mortality and death. I think many of us, discovering him on the cusp of adulthood, wondering about our place in the world, a little alienated, maybe feeling we were too smart for our own good, found his universe and the people who populated it uncommonly attractive. You could imagine yourself in a Bowie song. Synthesis again, lyrically this time, bringing the whole world into the moment.
I think this is why so many of the tributes to Bowie that I’ve seen this week treat him, with an unusual lack of self-consciousness, as an authority figure. Even a generation that rejected authority, that mistrusted its parents and political leaders and social institutions, needed a trail guide to its surroundings. For many of us, whether we thought of ourselves as artistic or not, Bowie was our ranger, a self-made cultural Buddha, an older brother who could guide us and shield us at the same time. Reading the tributes to Bowie from other musicians, all genuine and heartfelt, I’m reminded of Picasso speaking of Cezanne as his one and only master, the father of us all. Perhaps Bowie was like Picasso in a way, using and mastering multiple artistic styles, but he was even more like Cezanne, endowing his art with new gravity and inspiring generations, not to copy him but to make their own art. Seriousness again, from his voice to his musical explorations to the range of his lyrical themes.
Bowie used that authority in his work, too. It is remarkable, given his level of artistry and artfulness, how plainly, how directly he could address his audience. Listen to the lyrics of Rock and Roll Suicide: the knives seem to lacerate your brain? I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain! You’re not alone, turn on with me! This is a man who knows he has followers, who accepts the responsibility, who knows what he can say to them. The words look overwrought and pretentious on the page, but they work in the song, Bowie knows exactly what he can get across and how. He is a fully aware Buddha, not an accidental one.
You find Bowie’s influences all over the place, where you expect them and where you don’t. I went for a run in the park the other morning, with a collection of his 70’s songs on my phone as company. Toward the end, Ashes to Ashes came on, with its final chant: my mama said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom. Involuntarily, my mind pulled up Bowie’s other use of that phrase — get things done — in Modern Love (I don’t wanna go out / I wanna stay in / Get things done), and then pivoted to work, thinking about people I work with, who gets things done and who doesn’t. I realized, then, that the phrase in the song represents a core value that has been central to my entire work life, that my definition of effectiveness, in myself and others, is framed in terms of getting things done. It would be a gross overstatement to say that’s because of Bowie, of course. But it doesn’t seem entirely independent of him, either.
Thinking about Bowie on my run, I remembered too how in the early days of email, you would mostly send them to friends, and you would try to make them witty and artful. One favorite trick to add erudition, or other attitude, was to quote song lyrics, sometimes in context, sometimes as complete non sequiturs. Don’t lean on me man because you can’t afford the ticket. Bowie lines were great for that, which made this tribute from Brian Eno especially poignant. It turns out that our heroes Bowie and Eno, collaborators for decades, communicated in exactly the same way we did, only they didn’t need to lift their witty lines from Bowie and Eno. Turn over any rock this week, and you find Bowie’s influence.
Of course, that influence was only possible because he made beautiful art. Bowie’s voice has an older brother’s authority, but when he sent it to the upper register — think of the octave-high, over-the-rainbow jump in the chorus of Starman, all of Ashes to Ashes, and several songs on Blackstar (especially Dollar Days and the title track) — it also has a beauty that you rarely hear in rock and roll. Forgive me for always coming back to the Beatles, but when I think of Bowie singing in the upper register, I can’t help thinking of John Lennon, Bowie’s own older brother, singing at the end of “God,” on his first solo record. “I wa-a-s the dreamweaver,” John sings, “but no-o-w I’m reborn.” It is the most beautiful and affecting vocal I know in popular music, and Bowie sings in that rarefied neighborhood too. The voice of God, in more ways than one. I think Henry Rollins is spot on in his Bowie tribute when he speaks of him as having an “intimate distance” with his audience. The distance of his authority, the intimacy of his beauty, the two always intertwined.