Monday, January 11, 2016

Word on a Wing

I was out for a long run Saturday morning. It was cool and threatening to drizzle, but the wind was calm. As I made my way on the 9-mile journey, I listened to Blackstar, the new David Bowie album that had been released the day before on his 69th birthday. As good as his unexpected 2013 release The Next Day was, this was so much more interesting. I'm still digesting it, but it's kind of a mix of doomy art-rock and modern jazz. Lots of layers and textures.

Anyway, as I continued my run, my mind wandered to think of Lemmy, who had turned 70 on Christmas Eve and then died four days later. And I marveled at how Bowie had managed to stay vital at such an advanced age when most humans were content to retire and start slowing down. Granted, our expectations are low for artists, especially musicians, when they reach a certain age, but damn if Bowie didn't blow all of that out of the water. And then came the news this morning that he had died after an 18-month battle with cancer. THAT was really a surprise, and a bit of a gut punch, that he basically left us this terrific piece of work as a way of saying goodbye.

I don't claim to be a Bowie scholar, but I certainly own a good chunk of his vast catalog. There are gaps in my knowledge, but I'll be addressing those soon. I've pretty much listened to all his albums, but I certainly know some better than others. For me (and for a lot of Bowie fans, I'd wager), it's that ridiculously creative stretch from 1970-80 that is the sweet spot. What an amazing run of records. Since 1980, there have been peaks and valleys (I'm one of the few who seemed to enjoy the Tin Machine records), but man, what a way to go out.

I had heard a few Bowie songs on the radio as a kid, but it was the video for "Ashes to Ashes" from 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) that really caught my attention. I became more familiar with his many hits through religious rock radio listening, but didn't get any of his albums until around the same time in 1989, I bought Tin Machine and the Rykodisc reissue of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. By that point, he already had released 18 studio albums. Ridiculously prolific and much of it is must-have.

Some denigrate Bowie because he was such a musical (and physical) chameleon, changing styles and looks every few years. Those people are entitled to their opinions, but if you look beyond the hairstyles and makeup, there's an incredible body of work he left behind. He influenced so many musicians and non-musicians alike not just with his music but also his sense of style, fashion and attitude. His cultural impact on our society is immense.

As with Lemmy, I never got to see Bowie play live. Huge regret, because by all accounts, his live performances were amazing. It just never worked out.

Shocking and sad as the deaths of Bowie and Lemmy are, we are at the point where we need to brace ourselves because there will be more. The first generation of rock stars who emerged in the '60s and '70s is now beyond retirement age. While Paul McCartney, the Stones, Daltrey and Townshend are still out there touring, they're also in their 70s or damn close to it. It's depressing to think about, but it's an inevitability. As alien as Bowie seemed, turned out he was human, after all. Thankfully, he left us one final gift to remember him by.

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