A Lad Insane: A Thousand Words on David Bowie
In 1976, my mother, then 13 years old, attended what would be the first of many concerts in her life. The setting was the Philadelphia Spectrum; the man she saw was David Bowie. Now despite the fact that Bowie was on the verge of becoming one of the most well known rock stars in the world however, my mother wasn't exactly a big fan. In fact, the reason she attended the show was because a friend of hers had gotten tickets and didn't want to go alone. By the time my mother walked out of the Spectrum that night however, she was a fan. When I asked what about the show made her change her mind, she gave an explanation that featured many things you'd associate with Bowie. Phrases like innovative and remarkable live performer were used. Most importantly to my mother though was the fact that Bowie was someone who's success, image and creativity proved to the audience that it was alright to be different, to go against the grain. It was through that that my mother went from the outside looking in to understanding the genius of this strange, brilliant, puzzle of a rock star.
Bowie, who died today at the age of 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer, was indeed one of a kind. The son of a waitress and a promotions officer, he became entranced by rock and roll by the time he was ten years old, setting him on one of the greatest paths in the history of music. If you count his formation of a band at the age of fifteen, Bowie's musical career spans over six decades. Along the way, he released a total of 90 albums (27 LPs, 5 EPs, 9 live albums, 3 soundtracks and an astonishing 46 compilation albums), 111 singles, influenced hundreds upon hundreds of musicians like My Chemical Romance and Lady Gaga, became a science fiction icon and even found the time to become a successful movie star. In the world of entertainment, David Bowie did everything and he did it extraordinarily well. Like his idol Elvis Pressley, he was an anomaly; a movie star trapped in a rock star's body, whose singular mission was to become larger than life itself.
Ultimately, as massive a star as Bowie was, his greatest achievement was how uniquely he pulled it off. You often hear the word "different" thrown around when it comes to creative genius', but it's not really true; Bowie was indeed different in that he could appeal, be anyone anybody wanted him to be. Sometimes he was a folk rocker singing about men lost in outer space; other times he was the lord of arena rock; later he became a full blown pop star; hell, the man even found time to be the greatest walk-off judge in the cult comedy Zoolander. Many rock stars attempt to change over the course of their careers, but Bowie was addicted to it. Everything he did had to be different than the last thing he did, down to every last lyric, sheet of music or fashion decision he made. Without question, David Bowie was the first rock star who could be whoever his fans wanted him to be, which is why he'll never be remembered for one singular thing. His addiction to shed his skin truly made him a rock star for everyone.
For me, I choose to remember Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. Created by Bowie in the early 70s after he met singer Vince Taylor, Ziggy Stardust would become the basis for two of Bowie's most well known (and loved) albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane. Both albums served as rock operas, telling the story of a rock star in the dying days of earth, who uses his music to spread the message of love and peace (which he believes to be a message from extraterrestrial beings). Eventually, Ziggy and his message are destroyed by his rock star lifestyle and the abandonment of his fans, leading to him fading away. On the surface, the Ziggy Stardust character isn't really anything new, and more or less served as Bowie's first attempt of completely transforming himself into a character, while commenting on the effects of the rock star lifestyle. In truth, the brilliance of Ziggy Stardust is that it wasn't just the embodiment of Bowie, but Bowie's fears. Unlike many of his peers, Bowie understood that superstardom wasn't something guaranteed to last forever, that most rock stars careers ended with them dying due to their lifestyle or fading into obscurity, their message lost forever. Ziggy Stardust served as both Bowie's commentary on such matters and his fear that he would end up just like that. That fear, in my opinion, is the thing that led to Bowie being so obsessed with always changing. By transforming himself with each album, each song, each movie role, he gave himself a chance to start again, to become someone else, to keep himself "alive" just a little bit longer.
That drive, that work ethic, that brilliant insanity ultimately proved to be correct. From the time he first hit big with "Space Oddity" to the time my mother saw him in concert all the way to his death today, David Bowie never stopped being relevant and never stopped working. His last album Blackstar (released two days before his death) is proof of that, a haunting and brilliant piece of work from a man who wouldn't stop creating, wouldn't stop reinventing himself even in the face of death. Where so many rock stars folded under the spotlight, the pressure and the lifestyle, Bowie withstood, always finding a way to keep going in a way that shouldn't be humanly possible. Perhaps he was, as some jokingly claim, not human after all. Or maybe, as he clearly wanted, Bowie was anything you wanted him to be. A genius from outer space; a lad gone insane.