Rock and roll’s ultimate shape-shifter made his final transformation earlier this week.
David Robert Jones died Monday, three days after his 69th birthday. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because one of Jones’ earliest transformations was to change his stage name to Bowie, because he didn’t want to be confused with the other Davey Jones on the British music scene.
It would have been as hard to confuse the man-who-would-be-Ziggy Stardust with the American frontiersman, as it would be to confuse the Thin White Duke with the Monkee-to-be, but never mind. And changed stage names were more of an actor thing than something rock musicians did, with notable exceptions like Little Richard.
Unsurprisingly, that sexually-indefinite early rocker — who began life as Richard Penniman — was a major influence on the young David Jones, born in a lower middle class London neighborhood. A history of mental illness in his mother’s family — a beloved older half-brother ultimately committed suicide — may also have had something to do with his artistic multiple personalities. There is that thin line between madness and genius, but Bowie also had a sense for self-promotion.
It’s possible that the first Bowie recording that I heard was 1969’s “Space Oddity.” That was a No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom but didn’t fare quite as well in the U.S., despite the fact that it was released the week before Neil Armstrong made that “one small step” onto the Moon’s surface.
Unsurprisingly, the song about a disillusioned astronaut who chucks it all and floats off into space was inspired by the groundbreaking Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which one of protagonists is lost during a space walk. Bowie had been in several groups and recorded as a solo artist in the five years before “Space Oddity” made it — as what many considered a novelty song — without much success.
(He had even performed a mime act on the same bill with the proto-Glam Rock band Tyrannosaurus Rex. That may help explain that line in “All the Young Dudes,” written by Bowie, but popularized by Mott the Hoople: “Television man is crazy/saying we're juvenile delinquent wrecks/Oh man I need TV/when I got T Rex.”)
I might also have heard “The Man Who Sold the World,” off the album of the same name, which was released in late 1970. More likely, the first Bowie song that really got my attention — and most of the world’s — came off “Hunky Dory,” released a year to the day later.
“Changes” was the name of the song, and it summed up in one word what Bowie had gone, and would go, through over his 50-year career. And while some critics said the cut was about the artist reinventing himself, it was also clearly about what was happening in society at the time: “And these children that you spit on/as they try to change their worlds/are immune to your consultations/they’re quire aware what they’re going through.” And that was, of course, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.
However fast the world was changing back then, Bowie seemed to always be a transformation ahead. The year after “Changes” — which on the first go-round peaked at No. 66 on Billboard’s U.S. Top 100 — came out, he unleashed Ziggy on the world, and largely rewrote the book on rock performance, the androgynous title character being the most obvious aspect.
That show was enormously successful for a while, but Bowie then suddenly killed off Lady Stardust — not unlike the fans of the messianic performer in the album’s storyline — and headed off in another direction. Then another, and another: Thin White Duke, Plastic Soul purveyor — he kept reinventing himself, through financial crises, fatherhood, an open marriage that went haywire, substance abuse problems, the untimely deaths of his father and half-brother.
More importantly, he kept being creative with the music. Plus, he developed a second career — less successful commercially, but critically appreciated — as an actor, and also worked as a painter.
I learned a lot more about the man, and the artist, by watching a 2012 biographical video, “David Bowie — Sound and Vision,” the day after he died. That caught me up on some of what he had done over the past 20 years or so.
In that program, Bowie explained part of his shape-shifting by saying that he was never comfortable performing on stage, but was comfortable playing someone else. “When David makes a song, he doesn’t just make a song, he makes a character,” observed Brian Eno, who played with Roxy Music — a product of the Glam Rock movement Bowie helped start — and later produced three of his albums.
I was a huge science fiction fan as a teenager and young adult, and one thing I liked about Bowie was that, like Pink Floyd, he used sci-fi themes in his songs and albums. “Space Oddity” is an obvious example; “Five Years” from “Ziggy Stardust” is another, but that album is essentially an SF story.
(I was unable to find any confirmation of it, but I would bet that “the Spiders from Mars” in the album’s title, and as the name of Bowie’s backing band during that phase, comes from Robert Heinlein’s landmark sci-fi novel, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The Martians that raised Michael Valentine Smith after he was orphaned on the Red Planet were spider-like in appearance, as I recall.)
“The Man Who Sold the World” was actually the name of a sci-fi work (a novella by Heinlein, no less), just as the title of several Floyd songs — “Saucer Full of Secrets” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” — came from speculative fiction. But Bowie took it further, with lyrics about dystopian futures, like in “Diamond Dogs” and “Panic in Detroit.”
“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” is part of my music collection, but for some reason I don’t have much else by Bowie, a deficiency I’ll have to address. I have his early greatest hits compilation, “ChangesBowie,” but that is too hits-oriented, and doesn’t include some of the other good stuff: “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Is There Life on Mars,” “The Width of a Circle,” “Panic in Detroit,” etc. And that disc for some reason never got loaded into iTunes (along with several other orphans I found in just the top two shelves of the Big Ol’ Stacked Rack of CDs).
Another notable Bowie quote I found, relevant to his demise, comes from a teaser used on Sirius XM’s Deep Tracks channel. I can’t find the actual verbiage, but he in effect said that, when you’re in your early 20s, you kind of hope your life will end in a ball of smoke and fire. But there comes a time when you see that there’s a point in growing old.
Bowie didn’t quite make it to what one would consider old, and as a heavy smoker and coker, his passing at age 69 isn’t stunning. I wouldn’t rank his death as a generational gut-check — I’ve often said that the Baby Boomers will have hit the wall when the news comes across the wire that Jagger is on life support — but it does mark the end of an amazing career that had a big impact on The Music.