Monday, January 11, 2016

Good night, Ziggy.

One of the many permutations of David Bowie.
David Bowie was one of those rare musicians in the sliver of the Venn diagram reserved for those who are both immensely talented and immensely popular. It may be fitting in this regard that the song most associated with him, “Space Oddity,” was probably Curmie’s least favorite of the canon. Even his first breakthrough song, “Changes,” never really resonated with me. Except…

Except that it did. I was never a fan of the whole song, but that refrain, “turn and face the strange”… that resonated with high schooler Curmie in a way that little else ever did; that admonition has stayed with me for the ensuing forty-something years. And temporal art—music, film, theatre—is often measured not by the effect of the whole, but by the indescribable thrill of that perfect few seconds. Later in life, other parts of the song—“A million dead end streets and / Every time I thought I’d got it made / It seemed the taste was not so sweet,” for example—took on extra meaning. And that was sort of the point, wasn’t it? Bowie was in his mid-twenties when that song, his first hit, came out, and yet there was a maturity of both philosophy and expression seldom seen even in older songwriters.

Bowie crafted himself in countless ways, great and small. He was the quintessence of glam rock and then he was recording Christmas songs with Bing Crosby or a Motown standby with Mick Jagger. He was androgynous and not; he was mainstream and bizarre; he was the leper messiah, the rebel rebel, the returnee from suffragette city.  And he was never, never boring.  As a friend put it on Facebook today, “Prepare for global warming. The planet just got significantly less cool.”

One of my favorite memories of Bowie songs came in the 1997 World Series, when NBC used “Heroes” to introduce its coverage. And sure enough, the Florida Marlins won the odd-numbered games (and therefore the Series), while the Cleveland Indians won the even-numbered games. Every night we heard “we can be heroes, just for one day,” and then, every night, last night’s heroes weren’t, anymore. “Just for one day,” indeed.

Above all, David Bowie was an original. He was constantly exploring, probing, testing the limits of his art form(s), of his popularity, and indeed of himself. And when he knew he was dying, he responded the way great artists do, by using his condition as the catalyst for new art. Warren Zevon, another of Curmie’s all-time favorites, wrote and performed songs like “My Ride’s Here” (“Man, I’d like to stay / But I'm bound for glory / I’m on my way / My ride's here...”) under similar circumstances. Bowie’s swan song was “Lazarus”: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”

Like the man once called “Swamp Thing,” Ziggy Stardust is gone now. Sort of. His passing reminds those of us of a certain age that we’re not as young as we used to be. But he’s with us still, not in some New Age-y pseudo-spiritual way. No, David Bowie lives on because, more than any other artist since Salvador Dali (at least), he was inseparable from his creativity and his creations.

David Bowie was not merely a consummate artist. He was the art itself.

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