In light of his upcoming LP release “The Next Day”, I have decided to focus on an artist I am rapidly becoming a fan of: David Bowie. Bowie, for me, has been one of those artists that I didn’t know I knew about him until I knew about him. In less convoluted language, I had heard many of his famous songs on many occasions (such as the classics “Changes” and “Wild is the Wind”), but I would never have been able to tell you who the artist of these songs was—much less that the artist was the same person. It’s really only been recently that I have been exploring his entire repertoire. And, I must say, I am thoroughly impressed.
Perhaps it is just me, but I love people that have no grounded style. David Bowie completely lacks this quality, of which I couldn’t be happier. Perhaps this also demands clarification. When I speak of style, I mean artistic style; the themes and the techniques that the artist draws upon. There are some artists that have great, fixed styles. You can listen to one of their songs and you will have, essentially, listened to all of the songs in their catalogue. The style and genre that the artist uses is always repeated and is not going to change. A country-western singer with a fixed style of a deep husky voice and mournful lyrics, for example, is not suddenly going to do an upbeat rap song about puppies being born (although, really, who would?). And I love artists that know who they are and do not feel a need to change their style. If it works for them, great. But there is something extra special, extra magical, about artists who can transform themselves. Bowie has this magic.
Viewing his career so far, it is hard to believe that all of this has come from the same man. Of course one remembers the character of Ziggy Stardust, but what about Aladdin Sane? Being a Space Oddity? Singing in a children’s special? Going off to Berlin and becoming the anonymous star at a large height of popularity? Being the Goblin King and frightening and entertaining kids? Playing the role, until quite recently, of the unofficially retired rock legend? Bowie started his musical fascination with Elvis Presley, of which the song “Tutti Frutti” made Bowie swore that he had “heard God”. From there, he’s gone on to be part of so many great musical experiences. The one consistent thing that seems to drive him is the music. It’s always about the music. Not the way that he played it last time or the way that was most popular or that sold the most records or earned the most applause from critics. For Bowie, his current music informs his style, and not the other way around. Bowie does not just perform music, but becomes an integral part of its foundation. If this means being Ziggy Stardust, redheaded alien from space, so be it. If it means being toned down and conservative in dress and voice, so be it. Bowie switches tastes and musical ideas the same way that all humans do: as a result of expanded time and experience. He does not act on the commercial need to stay the same because he recognizes when he is changing and allows his art to monitor and respond to those changes (or so I imagine. I don’t wish to be one of those writers who claims to be best friends with a subject they have never met, much less had a single conversation with).
Not only this, but he can actually pull it off. When I listen to David Bowie doing soul, for example, I do not hear a David Bowie attempt at soul, but a total and complete version of the song. Take his rendition of “Wild is the Wind”, for example. While Nina Simone delivers an exemplary version of it, Bowie makes it his own with his deep vocals and the sense of blue-jeaned longing he injects into his voice. What is further is that this is the last song on Station to Station album, a song which comes after thirty minutes of pure, convincing, rebel-rock. This seemingly effortless transition is further found on later records as well, such as 2002’s Heathen.
Of course, one must also mention that Bowie is not just a singer. He also writes most of his songs and is a multi-instrumentalist, playing the guitar, keyboards, harmonica, saxophone, viola, cello, koto, and percussion (according to Wikipedia, which I trust is heavily guarded by Bowie fans).
And while other artists may decay with age, especially those with so many talents behind them, Bowie shows no signs of crumbling. Here’s hoping (or knowing) that his new album will be a further spectacular example of how much he can stretch himself, and—more importantly—what genuine music he can deliver to all those ready to listen and emerge themselves in his art.
If you have any thoughts about David Bowie you want to share, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
P.S. This, in no way, is a paid endorsement. I write this purely out of personal enthusiasm.
*Photo courtesy of writeonnewjersey.com.