David Bowie always struck me as one of those people who could have never not been famous. There was a certain indefinable charisma, star-power and cool that surely rose beyond the mere audacity of talent. Not to mention all those other legend-hood requirements like luck, timing, smarts, hard work, knowing the right people and never giving up. Regardless, David Jones / Bowie would’ve become DAVID BOWIE no matter what.
Perhaps that’s true for most superstars, but it sure must be heartbreaking for those who can sing their lungs out and not threaten getting arrested. I was never more aware of that than the first time I touched down in LA and found myself in an open-mic live music venue in Santa Monica. The guitarist would tap out for another guitarist, the bassist would do the same and so too the drummer, keyboardist and vocalist.
I remember one black guy probably in his 50s stepping to the stage who sang like he was in Earth, Wind & Fire. He swung from baritone to tenor to falsetto and was incredible. Only he wasn’t in Earth, Wind & Fire, he was in a bar with about 30 people in Santa Monica. Maybe he had a golden voice but wasn’t a songwriter. Maybe he never made the right connections. Maybe he shied away from opening the door when opportunity knocked. Maybe he was unlucky. And maybe he had every box ticked except for the one marked “star-power.” Whatever that is.
David Bowie wasn’t the most handsome man God created, but a quick check of YouTube comments under his videos has fans both male and female regularly declaring him “beautiful.” And I get it. Once upon a time androgynous and white as chalk (70s), later a glowing golden (80s), and in the 21st Century, masculine and seemingly cooler with every passing year. No matter the era, Bowie was always visually magnetic.
I love the quote from British comedian Jimmy Carr who broke the news of Bowie’s death to gasping Kiwi fans during his gig in Auckland on Monday night:
“At least we’re all a little bit cooler now the coolest man on Earth has died.”
There are countless Bowie scholars greater than I who could proffer theories on why he was just so cool, not to mention the fact it seems dorkily cliched to announce how much of a musical chameleon he was. Everybody knows his myriad of ch-ch-changes. More-so, I’d argue most of history’s greatest Rock & Roll / pop artists have also been genre-bending and that this isn’t unique to Bowie – just think of the diversity of Bowie’s most elite 20th Century pop peers like Queen, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Bee Gees, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart etc.
But what Bowie had that set him apart was a level of personal and musical cool that appealed to people who are defiantly alternative as much as fans who unapologetically love the mainstream. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bowie’s output is that he could be simultaneously deeply weird and deeply commercial. Or at least combine the twin tendencies with ease.
Like millions of others I feel genuinely moved by the loss of Bowie, especially given his death (of liver cancer aged 69) seemed so unexpected. Despite his relentless stylistic experimentation, I like that Bowie still called himself a “pop singer.” Coming from him it gives appropriate credibility to the possibility, range and magic of music that can still have broad appeal. With that in mind, here are this popular music lover’s three favourite Bowie songs. RIP to one of the most staggering music talents the world has ever seen.
Young Americans (1975) – The pre-eminent song of Bowie’s mid-70s “plastic soul” period, he temporarily alienated some rock fans with his sensational appropriation of American R&B. A soon-to-be famous Luther Vandross on background vocals.
Win (1975) – Also from the Young Americans album, this secular gospel ballad – complete with churchy call and response vocals – has a gorgeous melody with melancholic lyrics depicting an uneven love.
Heroes (1977) – A track I’ve often thought of as the greatest song U2 never wrote. Years before producer Brian Eno would lend his similar sonic landscapes to U2, he worked with Bowie on this epic tale of two lovers against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall. Best heard in its full six minute version where Bowie’s vocals are a crescendo rather than an opening bombast.*
Heroes (Live, 2002) – A bonus live version of Heroes from a 2002 concert in Berlin. I’ve included it because this is performance-wise my favourite era of Bowie: relaxed, clearly content, drug-free, brilliant (of course) and in my mind, cooler than ever before. And if there’s one word that I think of when I think of David Bowie, it’s cool.
UPDATE JANUARY 18: One week on from his death Bowie has no less than 19 albums and 13 singles in UK top 100. The highest single is Heroes, sitting at #12. This is twice as high as its 1977 peak of #24.