David Bowie, 1947-2016

Illustration by: Helen Green

The legendary musician died on Sunday of cancer. At the Awl, Alex Balk writes: “If you are under the age of 40 you live in a world he helped make, whether you’re aware of it or not. His importance transcends his work in a way that only a few other artists of his generation can claim.” Here are six stories about the rock star who left a mark on music, fashion, and art.

1. “David Bowie: Straight Time” (Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, May 1983)

Loder’s 1983 profile of David Bowie for Rolling Stone, which includes the release of “Let’s Dance,” one of Bowie’s biggest hits.

The album was recorded in three weeks (“I must try to better that next time,” Bowie cackles), and simplicity was the keynote all the way. “John Lennon once said to me, ‘Look, it’s very simple –– say what you mean, make it rhyme and put a backbeat to it.’ And he was right: ‘Instant karma’s gonna get you,’ boom. I keep comin’ back to that these days. He was right, man. There is no more than that. There is no more.”

2. The Invention of David Bowie (Ian Buruma, New York Review of Books, May 23, 2013)

A brief history of the rock legend’s style and fashions:

He drew his inspiration from anything that happened to catch his fancy: Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s, Hollywood divas of the 1940s, Kabuki theater, William Burroughs, English mummers, Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol, French chansons, Buñuel’s surrealism, and Stanley Kubrick’s movies, especially ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ whose mixture of high culture, science fiction, and lurking menace suited Bowie to the ground.

3. “The Man Who Came From Hell” (032c, Tobias Ruether, Winter 2006)

Bowie’s Berlin era:

He lived out the dreams of his youth in Berlin. “The first film that ever moved me,” he once said, “was ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’ I was around fourteen. Later, I saw ‘M’ and ‘Metropolis’ and films by Pabst, Murnau, and they all came from Berlin.” He became enthralled with German Expressionism, rode to the Brücke Museum in Grunewald, and painted: a child in the stairway, a Turkish father with his son, Iggy Pop in front of bare trees, and halfway decent imitations of Müller, Kirchner, and Heckel, whose 1917 woodcut portrait of Kirchner, ‘Roquairol,’ is mimicked on the cover of “Heroes”.

4. David Bowie: How Ziggy Stardust Fell to Earth (Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, Feb. 2, 2013)

On the character that made Bowie famous:

He had been singing and playing rock & roll since 1962, and making quaint and eccen­tric albums since 1967, to little attention. His progress had proved so fitful that he wondered if he wanted to continue with it. He saw himself, he said, as an actor; he wanted to use his face and body, his voice and songs to play roles, outlandish ones. Then, in 1971, he realized he could com­bine it all — music and theater — into one character: Ziggy Stardust, an otherworld­ly being who came to Earth to save it, but instead found rock & roll; who sang about change and pain, and played the music better than anybody; whose vanity soared out of range, and who had the charisma to fuck anybody he desired, woman or man; and whose aspirations delivered him to ruin, his best purposes unfinished. That character had made David Bowie famous, and it formed an audience and communi­ty around his singularity.

5. David Bowie’s Fresh Air Interview (Terry Gross, Fresh Air, 2002)

Having not really written any generational songs, I think maybe two or three of the songs that I’ve ever written have any bearing on the age of the listener. My stuff tends to be far more concerned with the spiritual, and with subjects like isolation and being miserable, so I think that sort of touches on really any age group. So in my terms, they’re just songs. The vehicle for those songs is a music that did indeed start as a youth-culture music, but it has aged well in itself and it has become a vast and complex thing now. There’s so many subdivisions and styles and variations. No, it’s just what I do. I wouldn’t know how to write and play any other kind of music, frankly.

6. David Bowie: Starman (Paul Trynka, Hachette, 2011)

The first three chapters of Trynka’s biography of the rock star:

So was David Bowie truly an outsider, or was he a showbiz pro exploiting outsiders, like a psychic vampire? Was he really a starman, or was it all cheap music-hall tinsel and glitter? Was he gay, or was it all a mask? There was evidence aplenty for both. And that evidence accumulated as his career continued, as fans witnessed, wide-mouthed, momentous shows like his wired, fractured appearance on Dick Cavett and his twitchy but charming camaraderie on Soul Train. How much of this bizarre behavior was a performance, a carefully choreographed sequence? In the subsequent years, David Bowie, and those around him, would struggle to answer this question.