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Bowie Bows Out

It was his birthday on Friday, then his death was announced on Sunday: David Bowie, one of the most original and unusual musicians of the last hundred years, is finally gone. Like the Beatles, he continually re-invented himself and blazed trails for lesser acts to follow. Unlike the Beatles, there was only one of him and he lasted a lot longer.

The Beatles blazed through a single decade. Bowie lasted six decades, from his first appearance in the 1960s to his final album Blackstar, which he released only two days before his death. In the 1970s he became one of the biggest names in popular music, creating the character Ziggy Stardust, who, in his own words, “looked like he’d landed from Mars.” Ziggy was an androgynous alien, singing of imminent apocalypse and star-men waiting in the sky. He attracted an audience that was too big to be called a cult and too devoted to be called simply fans.

A lesser performer might have kept Ziggy alive for decades, but Bowie was too musically restless and too full of new ideas to be confined by a single persona or to be happy with a single kind of music. He never played safe and he never stayed still. More characters followed, most famously the Thin White Duke, but as his fame increased so did his appetite for extremes. He became addicted to cocaine and deteriorated physically and mentally, making a series of bizarre and sometimes rambling statements in interviews and public performances.

But as always, he wove his personal experiences, good and bad, into his music, deepening its power and emotion, and reaching out to an ever-wider audience. From his novelty single “The Laughing Gnome” (1967) to the haunting “Space Oddity” (1969), from soul and funk to heavy rock and electronica, Bowie’s music was always evolving and always challenging. He performed both as a solo artist and in collaboration, earning the respect and admiration of his peers, but paying tribute to his own heroes, like Iggy Pop and  the Krautrock bands Kraftwerk and Neu!.

His Berlin trilogy, Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and Lodger (1979) were collaborations with Brian Eno, and he sang duets with Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury and Tina Turner. His best work is destined to remain influential for decades to come, but no-one can make so much music over such a long period without occasional missteps or misjudgements. That was part of his appeal: he took risks and never played safe or did the conventional thing. And he wasn’t – and won’t be – influential simply as a musician: he drew on a wide range of theatrical and artistic traditions to create some of the most memorable and unusual stage-shows ever seen in popular music. He also appeared in films, bringing his alien charisma and oddness to the role of The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976 and appearing as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986).

Bowie might have died much sooner, because he overdosed on drugs dangerously often in the 1970s, but although he didn’t live as long as he should, he crammed more into his sixty-nine years than most people could manage in six hundred. He would have made his mark whatever era he was born into, but perhaps the ’70s were the perfect time for him. He was a true original, a true great, and he will be truly missed. The Star-Man won’t be back, but he will always be remembered and his music will never stop playing.