I came late to the David Bowie fan club. Like most kids growing up in the ’80s, my first introduction to Bowie was from the local rock radio station. Singles like “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Space Oddity,” and “Changes” were on classic rock perma-loop in those days — and still are.
These are all great songs, no doubt. But teenage me was too busy listening to Duran Duran and the Clash to care about old glam rock stars. That changed when Let’s Dance came out in 1983. The title track, plus other pop gems like “Modern Love,” became part of my high school soundtrack.
And when Bowie formed Tin Machine at the end of the decade, I found in the blunt, cynical, and aggressive sound a harbinger of the grunge response to everything wrong about ’80s pop rock that Bowie had previously embraced and mastered. How’s that for a 180? Tin Machine is the Bowie that people love to hate, unmelodic and in your face. But as usual, it showed that Bowie was one step ahead of everyone else, and not afraid to try something new.
But for all the hits from his glory days in the 1970s and, later, his pop ascendancy of the ’80s, the David Bowie music I find the most inspirational is from his last two albums, The Next Day (2013) and the recently released Blackstar. I think it’s this music, made near the end of Bowie’s life, that explores the redemptive power of art and imagination that was so important to him.
Why does it speak to me? Maybe it’s because I’m pushing 50. Maybe it’s because I’ve been wondering about what place art and creativity will have in the second half of my life. Regardless, I find it amazing that, after a 10-year break, a 66-year-old David Bowie blew everyone away with The Next Day when we all thought he was retired and resting on his laurels. And last week’s release of Blackstar, recorded in a frenzy of creative activity when Bowie knew he was dying, is nothing short of incredible.
But it’s not just that Bowie worked up until the end. What I’m really inspired by is this: Instead of making just another album, Bowie kept pushing himself and those around him to explore new creative ground. He was still creating, thinking, blending, stealing, and taking risks. And collaborating: both on the music with a jazz quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and on two bizarre videos with filmmaker Johan Renck.
Renck put it well in a recent interview for Noisey: “David is an extraordinarily well-read man, you know? He’s truly brilliant. His depth of references is a chasm. He knows everything, he’s stumbled upon everything. And after doing what he’s been doing for such a long time, he’s still enormously curious, enormously creative in the right sense. Meaning, ‘let’s explore, let’s try stuff and see what happens.’”
And to me, anyway, that’s what David Bowie is telling us at the end, at an end he saw coming and prepared for as an artist: Let’s try something new and see what happens.