David Bowie: In Praise of Rock’s Restless Shape-Shifter

“There’s a sense of otherness about my best work that I really like,” pop’s master synthesist once said

It’s sad but fitting that David Bowie, who died on Sunday at the age of 69, passed away only a couple of days after releasing a bold new album. And it’s particularly appropriate that that album, “Blackstar,” which is composed of Bowie’s chaotic rock experiments played by adventurous jazz musicians, had listeners wondering if it heralded a new long-term direction or was just a one-off persona.

Bowie, after all, was a master of misdirection. His fans long ago learned that if you followed him and loved him as he went in one direction, you shouldn’t be surprised when he changed course and veered off in a different direction. He was cabaret, he was folk rock, he was glam rock, he was faux soul, he was icy electronic music, he was dance pop, he was primitive hard rock, he was industrial music and drum ‘n’ bass…

He became known for trotting out a sequence of indelible personas — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and then a number that didn’t really have names — but Bowie fans rarely got upset when he abandoned one direction, even if they’d loved it. In fact, they wanted the next Bowie: He was one artist who’d trained his fans who give him the leeway to go wherever the hell he wanted. Not for nothing was one of his first hits called “Changes.”

The shape-shifting took its toll, as did the usual rock ‘n’ roll excesses, and a certain messianic streak particularly pronounced during the first decade of his near 50-year career. “The word serious doesn’t even begin to intimate how pathologically deep I was into my message, whatever that message was,” he once told me with a grin. “I fail to remember at this moment, but I’m told it was terribly important, and it had something to do with our destiny.”

It’s telling that of all the personas, the one he couldn’t quite pull off came in the late 1980s, when he burst out of the creative doldrums of the overly theatrical dance-pop of the “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” albums with the squalling rock juggernaut that was Tin Machine, insisting that he was just one of the guys in that band. It may have been partly true, but nobody bought it: He was David Bowie, dammit, and David Bowie was never just one of the guys.

The signature songs are hard to miss and easy to chronicle: “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel,” “The Jean Genie,” “Young Americans,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” and on and on. They spoke to outsiders and misfits the way great rock ‘n’ roll had always done; they created a community on the fringes, emboldened more than a few lost souls and changed the culture, then shook things up and changed it once more. Again and again, he looked both forward and back, and found a blend — “I’m a synthesist, not an original thinker,” he said — that captured the tenor of uneasy times and unsettled psyches.

“There’s a sense of otherness about my best work that I really like,” he told me. “There’s something just a little bit uncomfortable about it. I don’t quite know how I do it, but when I’m there I think, ‘Oh, I like this place.'”

And that place existed as much in the margins of Bowie’s catalog as it did in the hits. There were few best-selling singles in his and Brian Eno’s late-’70s Berlin trilogy (the “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger” albums), chilly electronic music fueled by cocaine and paranoia, but songs like “Always Crashing in the Same Car” were unsettling masterpieces.

And though his later work couldn’t help but live in the shadow of that groundbreaking first decade or so — “pop artists don’t often get an opportunity to change the world more than once,” Mikal Gilmore wrote of Bowie in Rolling Stone — those years were studded with lost gems, at least once you got past that unfortunate mid-’80s MTV stretch.

The soundtrack to a 1993 British TV show “The Buddah of Suburbia” introduced the soaring “Strangers When We Meet”; his stint in Tin Machine produced what to these ears was his greatest overlooked song, the creepy “I Can’t Read,” which he redid acoustically and majestically for the end credits of Ang Lee‘s “The Ice Storm”; and his last two albums, “The Next Day” and “Blackstar,” are weird and worthy additions to the catalog.

The first time I saw him perform live was in February 1976, on an astonishing tour in support of the album “Station to Station,” all stark power and icy command; in the ensuing decades I saw him in arenas and clubs, in baseball stadiums and on a tarmac near LAX. He never gave you exactly what you wanted, except in his least interesting shows; more often, he pushed the audience to accept something new, sharing the stage with Nine Inch Nails (whom much of his audience hated) or constructing set lists out of ephemera and deep tracks and new songs, or sometimes even playing the hits even though he’d theoretically retired them in 1990. (If Bowie can’t change his mind, who can?)

Reeves Gabrels, who played guitar and collaborated with Bowie for more than a decade, once described him to me, affectionately, this way: “There’s all this stuff going on around us, and it’s so easy to just shut it out because it’s too much,” he said. “And instead, David just wades right in like an old lady at a basement sale. Instead of going through racks of clothes, he’s going through racks of ideas, pulling out what interests him.”

He was still doing that with “Blackstar.” He no doubt knew it would likely be his last album, and his final video, “Lazarus,” is as unsettling a depiction of decay as Johnny Cash’s video for “Hurt.” But there’s no maudlin air of finality on Bowie’s album, only the restless drive of a guy for whom restlessness was a default setting.

When I interviewed Bowie in 1997, he was enthusiastic about a new album because, he said, “it feels like we’re playing with a contemporary currency, and that is very exciting. And when I get excited I’m the complete teenager.”

So go ahead and say that David Bowie died at the age of 69, if you must. But I prefer to think of him going out a proud, excited teenager.

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