Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie: A brilliant brand to the very end

Ziggy Stardust cover outtake by Brian Ward

It's not easy to wake up to the death of your icon, but that day is here. David Bowie's own family have confirmed that he died of cancer. And the media are playing his greatest hits as fans and colleagues air their grief.

I'll admit, I cried a little. But thinking about the past few days, I see a death that was as carefully designed as the life Bowie lived. Mod, Ziggy, Thin White Duke, he was always deliberate in the way he presented himself. Even when he was living on nothing but cocaine, chilli peppers, and milk in the mid-70s, he was thoroughly self-aware as he manipulated the media world around him.

There are no details of David Bowie's death, only that he had had cancer for 18 months. I'm not sure we'll ever get anything more. This is a man so good at getting people close to him to keep his secrets that after a decade of silence he was able to surprise the world with a comeback album in 2013.

Instead, Bowie wrote his own requiem.

In "Blackstar," the advance video release for his eponymous new (and last) album, we are shown a dead astronaut, a solitary candle, and a singer with his eyes covered. He was telling us something, and it wasn't happy. Reviewers saw an artist exploring his own mortality. They just didn't know how closely it was looking back at him.

The second release from the album was even more brutally obvious: Bowie in a sick bed, eyes still covered.

Bowie's official website also released the lyrics in full. Knowing what you know now, doesn't it make your spine tingle?

Look up here, I’m in heaven I’ve got scars that can’t be seen I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen Everybody knows me now   Look up here, man, I’m in danger I’ve got nothing left to lose I’m so high it makes my brain whirl Dropped my cell phone down below   Ain’t that just like me   By the time I got to New York I was living like a king Then I used up all my money I was looking for your ass   This way or no way You know, I’ll be free Just like that bluebird Now ain’t that just like me   Oh I’ll be free Just like that bluebird Oh I’ll be free Ain’t that just like me
 In 1973, David Bowie "killed" his most famous persona, Ziggy Stardust, with a surprise announcement at the end of a massively successful tour.

What followed was a decade of rapid change. Bowie killed off new and exciting Bowies as fast as he could give birth to them.

I won't get into the lackluster years that followed, but the artist eventually got himself sorted out and started a second act in the '90s that explored new ground.

But then in 2004, on tour, a blocked artery in his heart almost killed David Bowie for real. He survived, but put his career on ice. The man of mystery became even more mysterious as he took a back seat to be an elder statesman for new acts like Arcade Fire.

The comeback album, in 2013, was good. But critics saw it as a remix of Bowie's past genius rather than evidence of a new one. He immediately started doing much more experimental jazz work, pointing the way to the album that came out on Friday. It was his 69th birthday, and the music world hailed Blackstar as a masterpiece.

What would have happened if David Bowie's death had preceded the release? It wouldn't have given us the extremely emotional theatre that a weekend of rave reviews and a Monday morning obituary. Now everyone is revisiting the album to decode the artist's messages about his own end.

I have no doubt that there will be theories about the seemingly perfect timing of this passing. The thoughts swim around my mind, too: Was it assisted suicide? Did he really only die yesterday?

Even the RIP message by lifetime collaborator Tony Visconti is cryptic: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of Art."

It doesn't matter how it really went down. He is gone. We now live in a world without David Bowie. But as a result of his dedication to art, we also live in a world full of David Bowie.

Thank you, David. I can't imagine my world any other way.

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