Tuesday, January 12, 2016

the man who sold the world

The secret to David Bowie's success was the fact that he didn't give a shit. He was his own person with his own ideas and his own agenda. I think that was pretty obvious over the course of his five-decade career.

As a rambunctious teenager, he defiantly informed his parents of his plans to become a pop star. He took his love of art and music and melded them together as he saw fit. He was creative and visionary beyond his years. And, whether or not his parents — or anyone else — liked it, he would become a pop star.

He became different versions of David Bowie throughout his career. They were fleshed-out, unique characters, but they were all David Bowie. Each incarnation was well thought out, with a back story and a new sound, yet they all fit perfectly within the Bowie persona. There was the alien Ziggy and his band of spiders. There was his versions of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. There was the suave and mysterious Thin White Duke. There was the insane Aladdin Sane and the cool nuevo-swinger in the style of Sinatra. He even made himself a gritty hard rocker and affected jazz auteur. They were all introduced at the risk of losing an already large and rabid fan base. But, he took that risk and it always worked out in his favor. (Boys always work it out.)

He made music his way, introducing elements of soul and funk and even disco — before it had a name. He pioneered electronica. He pioneered glam rock. He was an innovator, a groundbreaker and he defied genre. He was one of the first white artists to appear on Soul Train. He performed on Saturday Night Live in 1979 in a skirt. Not an outrageous, attention-grabbing skirt, but a sensible-looking ensemble that your Mom might wear to church. And if that wasn't enough, he invited Klaus Nomi to the show to supply backing vocals. And he did it without explanation, pretense or chest-thumping. (I'm talking to you, Gene Simmons!) He just did it.

During the recording of his dark, minimal, so-called "Berlin Triptych," he performed an uncharacteristic duet with crooner Bing Crosby for a Christmas special.

He stopped by a recording session with Queen and offered up a duet with Freddie Mercury. The pairing allegedly prompted guitarist Brian May to leave the studio, angered by Bowie's vision and "take control" attitude. Bowie lent backing vocals to the Queen track "Cool Cat," only to request that his vocal be removed from subsequent pressings of the Hot Space album. He said he didn't like how he sounded. He would go on to delete a track from re-releases of his own Never Let Me Down album because he didn't like it.

In 1980, eleven years after its initial release, Bowie shattered his sympathetic "Major Tom" character by proclaiming him a junkie in the pseudo-sequel "Ashes to Ashes." He could do that because he answered to only himself. He presented each new version of David Bowie in a "take it or leave it" manner. And fans took it.

He brought the same attitude to his movie roles playing everything from a lost alien to king of the goblins to the quietly menacing Nikola Tesla... all in that inimitable Bowie style. (My personal favorite was his "Colin Morris," the smiling hitman in the inside-joke filled free-for-all Into the Night.)

Bowie's most fitting role was his portrayal of Andy Warhol in the 1996 biopic Basquiat. Bowie was a true marketing huckster, cut from the same cloth as Warhol. Bowie's product was "Bowie." He sold Bowie to the public and the public bought every single version of Bowie that was offered. He played us like a left-handed fiddle and his customers ate it up. He was the only one of his contemporaries that remained relevant and viable. He didn't get nostalgic, refused to let himself get stale and never rested on his laurels. He released Blackstar, his 25th studio album on his 69th birthday and two days later he died of cancer, a disease that he fought for a year and a half. It was a battle he kept from the public and his fans. Just the way he wanted.

And he always did what he wanted.


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