Can we start with “Under Pressure”? Is that too obvious? Eh, who cares. We’re starting with “Under Pressure.” Get a load of the a capella version, man. Two Top 5 all-time rock singers howling into the void until the void retreats in terror and awe. This song owns.
The terror of knowing what this world is about was David Bowie’s muse; transcending that world entirely was his life’s work. He orchestrated so many personas and reinventions over the course of a half-century, many of them explicitly extraterrestrial, that he hardly seems human, hardly seems “real.” This quick GIF charting those transformations, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the Tin Machine guy, each one a career unto itself, has been making the rounds lately; the most startling thing about it is that he appears to age, slightly. Consider the 2013 Onion article David Bowie Asks Iman If They Should Just Do Lasagna Again, where the whole joke is the entirely ludicrous notion that sometimes he just hangs out in his apartment with his wife and makes dinner. For the guy to do something so pedestrian as to get old and die feels unnatural, fantastical.
Bowie passed away yesterday, two days after his 69th birthday, following a prolonged cancer battle he didn’t much publicize. On the other hand, he’d put out his 25th album, Blackstar, on that birthday, and it is now painfully clear that it was his typically highly orchestrated way of saying goodbye.
Yeah. Blackstar is dense and moody and jazz-haunted and lyrically pretty gnarly, especially in the cold light of this morning:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Someday else took his place and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar
See also: Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me. Yeah. This record is a lot to deal with and very possibly genius, which is Bowie’s typical MO: You can likely hum two dozen songs of his on command but have likely not quite grasped all the nuances of his two-dozen-plus full-length albums. Of his later stuff (from the ’90s forward, basically), the superfans who know what they’re talking about recommend you start with 1995's Outside, which Bowie famously described as “a non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle” and is likely the best Nine Inch Nails record not released by Nine Inch Nails.
Outside was his last album working with Brian Eno, who brought it up this morning in his own brief, quietly shattering eulogy. Earthling, from ’97—that’s the one with “I’m Afraid of Americans” and the sneaky-great “Dead Man Walking”—is well worth your time as well; 2012's comeback The Next Day has its champions, and given the timing was probably phase one of his clandestine farewell. Though maybe you’d rather just revel in the two-dozen old songs you already know and love and are currently humming to yourself, like this one or this one or (personal favorite) this one. I saw Bowie live in the mid-2000s in Berkeley, Calif., and he opened with “Rebel Rebel,” and I’ll never forget it, the primacy and perfection of that riff. The first song at a rock concert is a holy thing to me, and that was as transcendent—as incendiary—as it gets.
The other way to do this is to watch his videos all day, just to drive home how many lives he led and deaths he died. I went to a MOMA thing once where they just showed Bowie clips for two hours; there is, to put it mildly, some weird shit in there. (I personally guarantee that within 48 hours someone—probably Thought Catalog—is gonna go in on the “China Girl” video, which has perhaps aged poorly, or at least the part where he uses his fingers to slant his eyes, or the other part where he throws a bowl of rice in the air.) The fact that you can hum two dozen David Bowie songs—that your parents can hum two dozen David Bowie songs—is astounding, given how transgressive, how discomfiting, how alien he inevitably seemed. He is most likely the weirdest universally beloved rock star of all time. If you didn’t have your own freak flag to fly, he somehow still flew it for you.
There’s so much more to get into here, from his film career (The Man Who Fell to Earth is the big one, but don’t be ashamed if Labyrinth is closer to your heart) to his overall transformative effect on science fiction. His effect on hip-hop is likewise larger than you think, or at least extends far beyond Vanilla Ice. Fixate on the drugs if you like, sure. Immerse yourself in whatever aspect you chose, but spend at least a little time with Blackstar, which as a time-bomb Irish goodbye is a brilliant and insidious final card trick, simultaneously forbidding and welcoming, oblique and brutally direct.
“Dollar Days” is a classic-sounding mega-ballad with a chorus that every review I’ve read has quoted directly:
I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
And he did. Revealing himself as human, as mortal, may turn out to be David Bowie’s most audacious stunt in a career built on them. He will be terribly missed, despite the fact that he was never really here to begin with.
Lead photo by Getty.