Art & Culture
Hero: Thoughts on the Music and Career of David Bowie

By Kurt Ellenberger

I was truly shocked and saddened by the news of David Bowie’s passing. I had an immediate flashback to the 10th grade, Mr. Ogorman’s French class at Riverside High School in Windsor, Ontario, where I had a classmate named Morvan, who I didn’t know at all (in fact, I doubt I ever even talked to her). She was quiet and a little fragile, but also confident, if somewhat defiant and aloof. She always dressed in what I thought was quite outlandish fashion at the time — she was somewhere in between glam and punk, the latter of which was still largely undefined in 1975. One thing stood out to me — she often wore David Bowie t-shirts, and for some reason, I could picture her sitting in the row by the window wearing one of those wild and provocative t-shirts from her seemingly limitless supply. I wasn’t aware of Bowie’s music beyond a handful of hit tunes that were in rotation on the FM rock stations in Detroit at that time, but Morvan’s singular devotion to the man made me more curious about his music.

On Morvan’s non-verbal suggestion, I started delving more deeply into Bowie’s music and I have kept up with his career since. I have over a dozen of his recordings in my collection and I’ve been listening to them all on repeat since his passing. As I listened to his music all week, I also read many of the tributes and reviews that came out to celebrate his life. So many articles have appeared, all lauding his genius, his vision, his consistently remarkable and varied creative output since the 1960s (all of which I agree with wholeheartedly). What is it about the man, his music, his career, that has caused this worldwide outpouring of adoration upon his passing?

He was certainly a pop star with a string of major hits throughout the decades, but he was much more than that. He was able to do something quite remarkable and very rare — he transformed musical forms from a variety of different genres and blended them in a completely authentic and convincing manner to serve his artistic vision and create an output that is overwhelmingly unique and instantly identifiable.

Most commentators (including an expert from Rolling Stone) were spouting the same crusty and vacuous cliche — “Bowie reinvented himself” — a cliche that is used far too often in pop music criticism. (“Reinvention” is not a value in and of itself-many have tried it and most have failed because the artistic product at the end was not very good). As I listened to his music, I didn’t hear “reinvention” at all. I heard what I hear in most of the great musicians in any genre — a singular artistic vision sustained and nurtured over decades of creative activity by the exploration of different conceptual frameworks. This is most apparent in the first 15 years of his career, which is, incidentally, when most of the “personas” are found as well. He found inspiration in literature, particularly writers in the science fiction/futurist realm like Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, George Orwell, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and of course, the infamous Beat Generation writer, William S. Burroughs. Bowie was so successful in his musical adaptations that he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2013, the only musician to receive this honor.

As the renowned musicologist Roger Scruton points out, music needs philosophy, and, unfortunately, most popular music just doesn’t have a philosophical framework, which explains, in part, what makes so much of it forgettable and disposable. Without that element, the lyrical content tends to be autobiographical, focussing on personal events and experiences. That works well for a short time, but soon, the stories culled from a single life are limited, and new topics, broader topics, are needed to sustain a career as an artist. Most pop musicians are not able to make that leap from the concrete to the conceptual. Bowie, on the other hand, succeeded marvelously in making that leap. Almost from the very beginning of his career, his music has a conceptual and yes, often a philosophical framework, which stands in stark contrast to most of his peers from any of the eras in which he was active.

I do, however, understand how Bowie earned his reputation as a “changeling.” Simply put, he was spectacularly gifted at breathing life into his inspirations and offering himself as the living canvass for his art. In fact, he was so convincing, at the beginning at least, that one wondered if there really was any separation between Bowie and his host of personalities. This has been an endless source of fascination for the media, with Bowie’s various “looks” being chronicled repeatedly in major entertainment publications, including a vertigo inspiring gif that was featured in Time as well as on Germany’s Tagesschau news network, who called Bowie a “Pop Music Chameleon” (Bowie’s years in Berlin in the late 1970s made him an icon and adopted son for many Germans, not only for his music, but also for his outspoken opposition to the Berlin Wall in his anthemic hit from that era, “Heroes”.)

Bowie’s many identities and style periods are also a source of some consternation for many, including one critic, Chris Barton (LA Times), who claims that Bowie is “impossible to capture” from a stylistic perspective. I disagree. Speaking from a musical perspective, Bowie’s music certainly evolves and changes throughout the almost half century in which he was active, but to me, as I listened to his music en masse as I did during the weeks after his death, it seemed, on a structural level, remarkably unified. One hears the tremendous influences from his youth–Bowie was born in 1947 which means he grew up in the era in which blues and gospel music were giving birth to early rock and roll. It was …read more

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