Ashes to Ashes, Funk to Funky: A Tribute to David Bowie

Written by Jon Hecht

There’s a passage at the end of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs’ 1977
Elvis obituary in The Village Voice,
“Where Were You When Elvis Died?” that always comes into my head when I see the
outpouring of love from friends and critics and strangers after the death of a
truly Great artist.

“If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe,
then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more
contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it
was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to
speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and
few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism
holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s.
But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we
agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say
good-bye to you.”

I don’t think Bangs was right, after all. One could just as easily have
written an essay entitled “Where Were You When Michael Jackson Died?” or
written the sentence “We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Robin
Williams.” And now, I can see it happening again with one of my all-time
favorite musicians, David Bowie.

But for all the ways that every conversation I have, everything in the
media, and everything in my Facebook news feed has been monopolized by a true
and wonderful outpouring of love for the man who was born David Robert Jones, I
don’t think that one could write the same thing about him that Bangs did about

We did not agree on David Bowie. We never could. And that is absolutely

Oh sure, it seems like everyone loved the man and his art. There is
almost definitely a David Bowie song, or a David Bowie album, or a David
Bowie movie
or even a weird
appearance at an award show
that meant something to you. But I’m
gonna guess it wasn’t “Be My Wife,” which is one of the dozen or so
Bowie songs that I became truly obsessed with over the course of my love for
him for the majority of my mature life. It’s a strange, almost soulful,
ultimately unsuccessful plea to Angie Bowie not to leave him after his battle
with drug addiction and subsequent move to Berlin, drenched in Brian Eno’s
warm-yet-distant synths and Robert Fripp’s mosquito-buzz guitar.

Or, in simpler words, it’s most definitely not “Space Oddity.”

“Space Oddity” is totally awesome. So are “Changes” and “Under Pressure”
and “Ziggy Stardust,” or whatever song it is that you think of when you think
of Bowie. “Heroes” is a goddamn masterpiece, a perfect distillation of the
beauty of something not only despite it is fleeting but because it is. And you know what, songs that weren’t hits like
those, like “Cracked Actor,” and “The Width of a Circle” and “Station to
Station,” are all masterpieces as well. I love all of those songs, but none of
them for remotely the same reason I love “Be My Wife.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find two people who love David Bowie the same
way. I think that if you did, it would be almost an insult to the most
relentlessly innovative, hardest-to-pin-down musician of the past half a

David Bowie was not the first person to realize that rock and roll had
the potential to be anything. But he was the one to prove it.

He was the ultimate rock and roll groupie, working
with everyone
(and, apparently taking the groupie job pretty seriously),
diving into a new cutting edge scene often before it had time to figure itself
out. He joined up with the burgeoning punk/glam scenes of the early 70s Detroit
and London, and ended up releasing arguably the two best albums that ever came
from them.* He collaborated with his own hero, Lou Reed, on a comeback
after the band he’d idolized fell apart. He switched
to disco and worked with Luther Vandross
. He realized Iggy Pop’s
dream of becoming a feral beast and then later of
becoming a junkie poet. He teamed up with Brian Eno in
Berlin and made some of the most
influential ambient electronica put to tape
. He even worked with
Nile Rogers of Chic on one of the biggest pop hits in the 80s.

It’s strangely fitting to me that news of David Bowie’s death hits us
the day after Lady Gaga wins a Golden Globe for acting. Lady Gaga is exactly
the kind of artist that David Bowie created, not just for her outlandish
costumes, or her larger-than-life personae, or even for her bizarre way of
taking all of that into acting, making the pop culture image she has cultivated
into a character. David Bowie invented** all of that, but more importantly, he
invented the idea that that musician could then take off all of her makeup and
go do an album with Tony Bennett instead. He drew up the blueprints for being a
pop star, and somehow he managed to still be idolized by Kurt
who hated being a pop star more than anyone.

In death, Cobain quoted Neil Young, saying “it’s better to burn
out than to fade away.” It’s a long-discussed concept in rock hagiography—so
many rock stars of a bygone age (like, for instance, Neil
Young himself
) turn into a form of self-parody by the time they hit
Bowie’s age. But Bowie destroyed both concepts. Ziggy Stardust got to burn
in 1973, and the real David Bowie got to do the same in a public
struggle with drug addiction
. He got to fade away in a decade or two
when he released music few people cared about and hung out at fashion weeks in
fancy places.***

But better than any musician ever, David Bowie found a third way, a way
to say goodbye.**** On Friday (his 69th birthday) he released his last album, Blackstar, accompanied by a video
that pretty explicitly shows Bowie dealing with the spectre of oncoming death.
From what we can tell, he knew he was close to the end, and he used this
knowledge to make one last gift to the world. His twenty-fifth album is good, really good. It’s among the weirdest
and most adventurous
things I’ve ever heard, up there with Bowie’s
own Low in 1977.

Bowie tried to exit gracefully, and he truly did. But now, the day after
he’s gone, I can’t help but thinking that, after almost 5 decades of making
music, after countless reinventions and personae, after becoming an icon of the
fashion world, acting in David Lynch and Christopher
films, keeping us guessing and somehow being at his absolute
weirdest when he did completely ordinary stuff, it feels
like David Bowie burnt out, dying far too early. We didn’t get nearly enough.

It’s fitting that David Bowie’s farewell was title Blackstar. His star keeps shining, even when the light has gone

*I realize that when I’m no longer mourning the death of one of my
heroes, I will probably remember that T. Rex’s Electric Warrior is actually better than Aladdin Sane. But the fact that I can even argue with myself over
whether my third or fouth favorite Bowie album is better than the album that
defined an entire genre is a testament to his greatness.

**Here’s where I talk a bit about Labyrinth,
because I have to fit it in somewhere. Labyrinth
is an absolutely insane movie, involving future Oscar-winner Jennifer
Connelly navigating a bizarre maze in search of her lost baby brother that got
kidnapped by goblin puppets, a sheepdog named Ambrosius, and whatever Ludo is. And somehow, the most memorable thing
in that movie, more than any of the trippiest ideas of Jim Henson and Terry
Jones, is David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. And
it’s not because he’s wearing a weird costume—by David Bowie’s costume
standards, it’s pretty tame. I’ve often wondered if Bowie just showed up to set
wearing whatever he had lying around and Henson just looked at him and said
“Sure! Why not?” It’s just that David Bowie is fucking crazy, even compared to
a maze full of goblins.

***Of all the things that get to me about David Bowie being gone, the
fact that he’ll never be photographed at the side of a runway in Milan might be
the saddest.

****Johnny Cash came closest.

All songs mentioned: