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Friday, January 15, 2016

In Memoriam: David Bowie

Written by Jon Williams

Waking up on Monday morning, the first thing I saw was news of David Bowie’s passing. It was a rather unpleasant way to start the week, to say the least. It would have been shocking enough by itself, but coming as it did on the heels of what seemed like such a jubilant Friday for the superstar—a new album release on his 69th birthday—made it particularly surreal.

That shock was felt throughout the entertainment industry, upon which Bowie had made an indelible mark over the course of his decades-long career. Born David Jones, he showed an early interest and aptitude for music, he formed his first band at fifteen. He took his stage name in 1967 to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, and would then release his eponymous debut album later that year.

That album made few waves, but Bowie would make his big break two years later in 1969 when the single “Space Oddity” made its way onto the charts. The album on which it appeared was originally titled David Bowie, just like his debut, but was eventually renamed after the single. He capitalized on that success by following up with the albums The Man Who Sold the World in 1970 and Hunky Dory in 1971. However, the legend of David Bowie really began in 1972, with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Introducing his theatrical persona, the album features such classic hits as “Starman” and “Suffragette City,” as well as “Ziggy Stardust.” Bowie himself described his next album, Aladdin Sane, as “Ziggy goes to America.”

From there, Bowie would perform one of his musical reinventions, partially in an effort to distance himself from the Ziggy Stardust persona. This began with his 1974 album Diamond Dogs and continued through Young Americans (1975), which featured a contribution from John Lennon on “Fame.” Then, in 1976, a new persona, that of the Thin White Duke, emerged from Station to Station (related to the character he played in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (currently unavailable on video), the character also inspired, much later, a fun Bowie origin story, “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” from Neil Gaiman). He then finished off the decade with a three-album cycle: Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

While the 1980s were less prolific for Bowie, he once again proved himself capable of changing up his style. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in 1980 built upon the sound of his late ‘70s albums, but the two that followed—Let’s Dance and Tonight (currently unavailable on CD)—were more in line with ‘80s dance/pop (with Bowie’s unique personality mixed in, of course) and served him well in the MTV-dominated music world of the time. It was around this time that I experienced my first real encounter with Bowie, starring as Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. A year later, he returned to a more straight-ahead rock sound with Never Let Me Down (currently unavailable on CD).

From there, Bowie attempted to form a band with which to share the spotlight, with only limited success. It was, therefore, a six-year gap before his next solo album, Black Tie White Noise (currently unavailable on CD). He would release seven albums in a ten-year period, culminating with Reality in 2003, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. After 2003, however, health problems forced Bowie to slow down, and there were no new solo albums for ten years, leading to speculation that he had retired. However, he returned with a vengeance in 2013 with The Next Day, which garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album. Then, just last week came Blackstar, an immediately acclaimed album that Bowie planned as a parting gift to his fans.

While David Bowie’s death has sent ripples of sadness throughout the music world and beyond, there is no doubt that he leaves behind an incredible legacy and catalog. This post sums up his musical career, but cannot begin to describe the lasting impact created by his songs, style, and personality. For more on his life and work, check out the biography Bowie by Wendy Leigh, and SmartBrowse his name on our website for the rest of his discography, his movies, concert films, and more; patrons can also find a wide selection of his music on hoopla.

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