David Bowie, the incomparable singer, songwriter, and multi-faceted musician, has passed away at 69. Born David Jones of Brixton, London in 1947, the multi-hyphenate artist and fashion icon had been privately battling cancer for some 18 months. From all reports, he passed away peacefully at home on January 10th, 2016. He is survived by his wife, model-producer-actress Iman Abdulmajid, and his two children, Alexandria Zahra Jones and Duncan Jones.
Those are words that I never wanted to write and, in some way, never thought I would have to. Through both his albums and his acting career, Bowie gave off a sense that he was not of this Earth, that the mortal rules that governed life and death for all creatures had somehow been usurped by his very being. And it was much more than the fact that he remained the most handsome man in the room up until his death. When dropping by late-night shows, performing on stage, or making small cameos in films and TV, he evinced an attitude of having total, unerring wisdom of the world and a wondrous otherness. He wasn’t above or “over” the world, he just seemed to be constantly looking at existence from a more curious, strangely warm place within himself.
Though known for major hits like “Heroes,” “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars?,” “Changes,” “Modern Love,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Under Pressure,” his duet with the late Freddie Mercury, Bowie made albums in the classic sense, works that flowed thoughtfully from one song to the next. His best works are some of the best albums of the 1970s and 80s: Hunky Dory, Low, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Heroes, and Station to Station would each land in my top ten records of their corresponding year. And what makes this all the more devastating is that his latest record, Blackstar, would have been placed in the same upper echelons as those works, written and performed with the same innovation and startling, varied sense of rhythm that had become something of his stock-in-trade.
Beyond that, of course, he proved to be a remarkable presence on the big screen, most notably as the alien being at the center of Nicolas Roeg‘s ecstatically strange The Man Who Fell to Earth. In that role, Bowie proved to be the ideal figure to convey Roeg’s hugely fascinating thoughts on alienation, sexuality, and human communication, taking on several different guises within the film itself; it remains a stunning work of self-reflexivity for both Bowie and Roeg. He would later do excellent work with Nagisa Ôshima for the caustic war film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but is perhaps best known for his roles as the villainous Goblin King, Jareth, in Labyrinth and as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige. I’ll remember him equally for his bit parts in a pair of radical masterworks: David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ.
Cinema was seemingly in Bowie’s blood, as his songs often soundtracked sublime visual movements in a number of films. (There’s also the fact that his son directed two of the more inventive science fiction tales of the last decade or so – Moon and Source Code – and is preparing to release his third film, the hugely anticipated adaptation of World of Warcraft, titled simply Warcraft.) Among the innumerable instances of his songs being used expressively in film, the one that sticks with me the most is the scene in Leos Carax‘s Mauvais Sang in which Denis Levant‘s young, energetic thief runs through the streets, free and in love, while Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays; Noah Baumbach was so struck by the scene that he added an homage to it in his exuberant Frances Ha. To me, the scene encapsulates what Bowie, and his art, were all about: bounding, untethered, through the world at large without care for how his actions might seem to others, and finding genuine glory in just such acts. Beyond his tremendous music, performances, and humanitarian efforts, that will be his legacy, and it reaches far beyond death.