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By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)
Just days ago, music lovers and critics alike rejoiced with the release of David Bowie’s highly anticipated new album, Blackstar. But few knew this would be his last great masterpiece.
On Friday, Jan. 8, Bowie turned 69 and simultaneously released an exceedingly ambitious and artistic record, adding to an already colorful catalog. With Blackstar, Bowie channels the surrealistic minimalism if his late 70s works such as Heroes and Low, while giving it a modern darkness. The advanced singles “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” saw Bowie taking on a strange new persona, equally intriguing and mysterious.
Days later on Jan. 10, the news of his death following a lengthy battle with cancer, sent shockwaves across the world. Millions of fans young and old have voiced their love for the recently fallen star. Through his art and dozens of personas, Bowie was larger than life, showcased by his mysterious last days and romantic death.
Bowie’s career has undergone its umpteenth renaissance in recent years, beginning with his surprise comeback for 2013’s The Next Day. It was a quieter album, indicating a older yet hungry artist still managing to channel what made him great. Although the album had no smash radio hits, it struck a nerve with a new generation of indie rockers, while long-time die-hards were equally pleased.
With The Next Day, Bowie has proved his unique ability to remain contemporary despite hailing from the golden era of Classic Rock Radio. Since his swearing off touring over a decade ago, the Thin White Duke has rarely made any live appearances. However, his hefty discography and wide spanning influence (Iggy Pop, The Psychedelic Furs, Nine Inch Nails, Placebo and Arcade Fire to name just a very few) have kept him both relevant and respected in nearly all circles. And it comes as no surprise with a career as staggering and intricate such as that of David Bowie’s.
The musical journey of David Bowie is one of humble beginnings. His early singles and self-titled album were a collection of mere typical 60’s folk rock and baroque pop, much in the vein of Bob Dylan and early Beatles. Cutesy love tunes made up most of his early repertoire, although writhe with his signature charm. But by 1969, change was in the air. Mankind turned toward the sky as the first human took his first steps on the surface of the Moon. Inspiration struck, and a “Space Oddity” was born. Bowie’s first smash hit single saw the beginnings of many personas, alter egos and overall realities he would come to perfect.
By early 1970, the Psychedelic and Art Rock that was dominating the musical landscape was shifting and splintering. Glam Rock had risen as a more pop-friendly yet equally-sophisticated counterpart. With the rise of artists such as T. Rex and Roxy Music, androgyny was all the rage. In the center of this was David Bowie, who had now traded in with folk-y acoustic guitars for thunderous hard rocking electrics, ready to dominate a new era of Rock and Roll. His albums The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory perfectly encompassed his strange new direction. The success of early 70’s radio hits “Life on Mars?” and “The Man Who Sold the World” set the stage for what would change the history of Rock and Roll and popular culture from thereon.
With the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie not only perfected Glam Rock, but the art of the concept album and alter ego as well. The success and continuing influence of that record stands head-to-head with that of any by the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. The Ziggy Stardust persona was larger than life and otherworldly, yet terrifyingly human and vulnerable; one trait Bowie seemed to carry with him throughout his life. He followed Ziggy up with the equally dynamic Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, taking his high-concept art to uncharted territory in popular music, all before ditching it completely reinventing himself.
The sounds of Philadelphia Soul Music influenced Bowie so heavily, that by 1975 he had traded in his signature make up for a soulful crooner. Young Americans saw the massive success of “Fame,” a songwriting collaboration with John Lennon, and his first major U.S. hit. He even landed a gig on the up-and-coming national television sensation Soul Train to perform the aforementioned track.
The late 70s saw a darker time, both musically and personally for David Bowie. Punk Rock had risen and killed off nearly all of his early 70s contemporaries. Although his music would come to inspire many early punk and New Wave outfits (New York Dolls, Ramones, The Damned, Blondie), it didn’t look as though Bowie had the momentum to keep up with the angst-filled movement. As he retreated to Berlin to kick some substance abuse issues, he teamed up with Roxy Music mastermind Brian Eno for a trilogy of what would become his most complex and dark work. Beginning in ’77 with Low, his new Art Rock sound wasn’t ready to tear up Top 40 radio, but certainly indicated a huge artistic evolution. Artists such as The Talking Heads and Sonic Youth would go on to hail it as extremely influential. Later that year, Heroes, spawning the hit single of the same title, would boast a massive hit featuring the virtuosic guitar talents of none other than Robert Fripp of King Crimson. 1979’s Lodger would conclude this era of experimentation and artistic expansion.
By 1980, Bowie returned to Top 40 with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Propelled by the smash hits “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes,” Bowie adopted the sounds of New Wave and Post-Punk; genres that in many ways were pioneered by his previous works. He seemed to fit right at home, connecting with new and older generations of Rock fans.
Bowie tried his hand at pop music for 1983’s Let’s Dance to an astounding outcome. The now former Glam rocker had recruited Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and a young Stevie Ray Vaughn for this magnum opus, yielding favorable results and scoring some of the biggest hits of his entire career with singles like “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.”
Bowie would continue this sound throughout most of the 80s to mixed results from fans and critics. However, his role as Jareth, the Goblin King, in the children-targeted film The Labyrinth, had yet again propelled him to an iconic status, after becoming a cult favorite among 80’s children and beyond.
By the mid 90s, Alternative Rock was the dominant musical force both in Top 40 and underground circles. And at the forefront of mid-90s alt-rock where Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor. Before Cobain’s passing, his iconic cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” as one of his last live performances sparked a renewed interest in Bowie. Reznor, also at the top of his success, wasn’t shy about Bowie’s influence either. By 1995, Bowie had released the industrial-tinged Outside, and hit the road with Nine Inch Nails. Bowie and Reznor went on to collaborate on the soundtrack for the 1996 film, Lost Highway, and on Bowie’s 1997 album, Earthling. Through their collaborations, Bowie yet again found relevance among a new generation of audiences.
Always staying three steps ahead, Bowie made history in 1999 with his album Hours…, marking the first album to ever be released exclusively through the internet. His following albums, 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality were both moderate successes, bridging the gap between contemporary fans of Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie and his classic rock audience. Following a massively successful world tour in 2004, Bowie announced his retirement from touring and focused on small projects. It seemed as though Bowie had all but retired completely with little new music released in later years.
Much to the delight of fans young and old, Bowie announced his return with the critically-acclaimed album, The Next Day, in early 2013. Its highly anticipated follow-up, Blackstar, served as a bittersweet swan song for a man of so many notable accomplishments. Groundbreaking both sonically and visually, Blackstar will undoubtedly live on as a final gasp of inspiration, of what any artist, young or old, hot or not, can accomplish.