David Bowie (illustration by Dan Springer)
There are so many variables that determine what makes an artist or band “essential” for FUV and its listeners. Here we devote a week (or two) to a deeper investigation of an artist or band’s longevity, impact, influence, history and discography. FUV Essentials, both on-air and online, celebrates the musicians who have shaped our cultural soundtrack for the past fifty years.
A consummate shapeshifter, rock star, and genius innovator, no artist defined the restless progression and mutability of music over the past five decades quite like David Bowie. His unexpected death on January 10, 2016, was a devastating blow to millions of music lovers across the globe, unleashing a downpour of grief and bewilderment that is still felt daily.
Few men ever seemed as effortlessly immortal as Bowie—as improbable as that might be in hindsight—and as he returned to recording and theatre over the past few years, via 2013's The Next Day, the 2015 off-Broadway production of "Lazarus," and this year's secretive Blackstar, we expected that he'd always be with us. He'd likely outlive us all. It's inconceivable that he is gone.
The scope of Bowie's sweeping influence on rock, pop, jazz, theatre, literature, stagecraft and fashion is infinite. He remains an exemplar for the wiry theatrics of St. Vincent or Annie Lennox, the darker vortexes of Nine Inch Nails or Iggy Pop, the ambitious eclecticism of Arcade Fire, Janelle Monáe or LCD Soundsystem, and the queer pride of Bloc Party's Kele or Elton John. Bowie befriended his musical heroes, like Scott Walker or Nina Simone, and often collaborated with them too, like Lou Reed, John Lennon and Brian Eno. When 19-year-old Lorde poignantly sang "Life on Mars" at the BRIT Awards earlier this winter, backed by longtime members of Bowie's touring band, there was no denying his astonishing impact on every generation: past, present and future. In that way, as the years crawl on, David Bowie will remain eternally alive.
Born David Jones in the working class neighborhood of Brixton in south London on January 8, 1947, Bowie possessed a schoolboy's love of American rockers, like Little Richard or Elvis Presley, and, as a fledgling saxophonist, the jazz experimentation of John Coltrane or Charles Mingus. He filtered an enduring love for the Beatles, Bob Dylan, British comedy ("The Goon Show") and West End musicals (Lionel Bart's Oliver!) into his nervy patchwork of character-driven rock personas.
Bowie zigzagged between his own polychromatic eras, slipping from the gentle, folky thrum of "Space Oddity" to the taut theatricality of Ziggy Stardust, spiralling from the gaunt soul of Young Americans to the prickly fury of Station to Station's haughty Thin White Duke. Bowie wandered the streets of Berlin with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno for Low, Lodger and Heroes (and according to Eno, the singer lived on raw eggs). The '80s arrived with the technicolor fervor and new Romanticism of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Absorbing the energy of industrial raves and electronica, Bowie dove into the maelström with the propulsive Earthling.
Navigating his fifties and a post-9/11 world, he wrote the songs for Heathen and Reality with an unflinching, sober eye. And he guided us through his last years, with mystery and grace, on The Next Day and Blackstar. In many ways, the cultural history of Britain and the United States—and our universal arc from youth to middle age to death—can be documented via Bowie's 25 studio albums.
His music continues to bookmark our lives. Maybe, as a neon-clad kid of the '80s hooked on nascent MTV, you discovered a very blond, video-sculpted Bowie and shouted along with him to "Let's Dance." Or like a young Trent Reznor, you were wonderstruck by Scary Monsters. FUV's own Rita Houston found shelter and connection in the brassy grooves of Young Americans. And for millions of bereft Bowie fans, it's still hard to listen to "Lazarus" without weeping.
David Bowie was a visionary. And he will be missed.
More David Bowie features here:
- Rita Houston's David Bowie
- Hey Marseilles' cover of "Heroes," filmed at FUV's Studio A
- Dennis Elsas's 2011 chat with Paul Trynka, the author of Starman
- The Magic Shop's Steve Rosenthal's Five Essential David Bowie Albums
- BØRNS' Five Essential David Bowie Albums
- Bowie Roundtable with Gail Ann Dorsey, Mark Plati and Tim LeFebvre
- The Music of David Bowie At Carnegie Hall: Recap