(From The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, dir. Nicolas Roeg.)
David Bowie represented a lot of things to me. He wrote some of the best songs of the last half-century, covering so many themes I wouldn’t know where to begin, although I particularly like the songs related to outer space (either literally or metaphorically) and to the pressures of fame. He was an actor so weirdly gifted that he could play an alien (see GIFs above), a vampire (The Hunger) and Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ) without anyone thinking twice about it. He was an artist who painted, sculpted and worked in different kinds of digital media. Whatever Bowie did, I always knew it would be worth my time.
It’s hard for me to put every emotion I have about David Bowie’s music into words. He recorded so much and I feel, at my young age, that I still know too little – about his career, about how to write a good piece of music criticism, about how to eulogize someone who means so much to you and passes away quite suddenly. So in some of the cases below, I won’t say anything (or very little) except to quote a passage from the lyrics. I’m sure that David Bowie’s own writing will ultimately do a better job at convincing you of his talent than I can. I picked sixteen musical selections – it’s 2016, so that was the first number that came to me – but if I had not set that limit for myself, the list could have gone on ad infinitum.
1. “Space Oddity” (on album Space Oddity, 1969) – “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…” What do you do with a song about an interstellar journey made by a character named Major Tom? Not to mention a song that has a Stylophone solo (starting at the 2:42 mark)? It’s amazing to me that this track successfully launched David Bowie’s career, rather than remaining a weird one-hit-wonder novelty song from the psychedelic era.
2. “Changes” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) – “Turn and face the strange…” The opening track of one of the most important albums of my teenage years, Hunky Dory. This song can, and has been, interpreted as Bowie’s artistic manifesto.
3. “Oh! You Pretty Things” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (TV appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972) – “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior…”
4. “Life on Mars?” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (music video from 1973) – “But the film is a saddening bore/For she’s lived it ten times or more…” On Bowie’s 69th birthday this past Friday, I was listening to this song most of all. I told whoever would listen to me that this was one of the greatest songs ever, no question. It is the high water mark of a career filled with numerous milestones, rule-breaking and boundary-pushing. Everyday human life is the most outrageous, unbelievable yet captivating spectacle out of all the entertainment forms in our world, and this song takes note of that truth quite eloquently. If you dare ask me to name the single best David Bowie song, this is the one I choose.
5. “Starman” (on album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972) – “There’s a starman waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds…” Just last month I was in a theater at the Museum of Modern Art, watching The Martian in 3D, and I was pleased to hear “Starman” pop up in the movie. After many years of loving the song when heard through headphones, it had an even more exciting resonance in the theater.
6. “Rebel Rebel” (on album Diamond Dogs, 1974) – “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/Hey babe, your hair’s alright/Hey babe, let’s go out tonight…” One of the definitive examples of 70s glam rock, featuring an unforgettable guitar riff played by Bowie himself (as opposed to being recorded by any of the other musicians he often worked with, like Mick Ronson). A small anecdote: I once tried to convince a high school friend of mine to listen to “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars?”; I don’t think she ever bothered with the former and when she finally got around to listening to the latter (it took about a month before she made time for it), she said that “it was alright.” (Swear to God.) Hey babe, your song’s alright!
7. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (on album Low, 1977) – “Every chance, every chance that I take/I take it on the road/Those kilometres and the red lights/I was always looking left and right…” I once titled an essay written in a college creative writing class after this song.
8. “‘Heroes'” (on album “Heroes,” 1977) – “Though nothing will drive them away/We can beat them, just for one day/We can be heroes, just for one day…” Another of Bowie’s greatest songs. I think one of my primary associations with this song, even though it was years after I fell in love with it, was as the anthem for the UK athletes at the London Olympics in 2012.
And now, moving forward into the 1980s…
9. “Ashes to Ashes” (on album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980) – “My mama said, ‘To get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom…'” Bowie plunges into the MTV era in style, saying goodbye to some of his old ways in order to experiment with new musical methods. I associate this song with the British show of the same name, much as I do with “Life on Mars?” and its counterpart show.
10. “Under Pressure” (David Bowie & Queen) (1981 single; on Queen album Hot Space, 1982) – “‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And love dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves…” A collaboration for the ages.
11. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (Cat People soundtrack, 1982) (used in scene from film Inglourious Basterds, 2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino) – “Don’t you know my name/Well, you’ve been so long/And I’ve been putting out fire/With gasoline!” This Giorgio Moroder-produced, synthesizer-heavy pop-rock song was given new life when Tarantino used it in a significant scene in Inglourious Basterds. Mélanie Laurent’s character, who was forced to flee the scene of her family’s murder at the hands of Nazis, has relocated to Paris and, under her new alias, operates a movie theater in Paris. When a German soldier develops a crush on her, Laurent uses this new bond to her advantage and crafts a radical strategy for revenge: when her cinema is chosen as the venue for the red-carpet premiere of a Nazi propaganda film (with Hitler, Goebbels, and many other heads of the Third Reich in attendance), Laurent makes plans to blow her building to smithereens by setting hundreds of film cans’ worth of celluloid on fire. Even though the use of the David Bowie scene, when Laurent puts on her makeup (or, more accurately, her war paint) to prepare for the big show, is anachronistic, the lyrics and the mood of the song make perfect sense in Tarantino’s context.
12. “Let’s Dance” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) – “Let’s sway under the moonlight, the serious moonlight…” Isn’t it terrific how Bowie could transform from persona to persona? I dig the suits from this era. Also, this song was a #1 hit in both the UK and the US, so that’s pretty cool.
Speaking of “serious moonlight,” here is my sole David Bowie shirt, and it is a treasured possession. Originally bought and worn by my aunt, this tee has gone through some rough times – it once was covered in white paint after I accidentally collided with a wet wall – but little mishaps couldn’t ever keep a good shirt down. For a long time I have associated the article of clothing with good luck. Just two months ago, when I was getting ready to do a presentation in a graduate school class, I told two of my friends in that class that “everything is going to be OK because I’m wearing my lucky David Bowie shirt.” And indeed that day was blessed with a terrific teaching experience.
13. “Modern Love” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) (used in scene from film Mauvais Sang, 1986, dir. Leos Carax) – “There’s no sign of life It’s just the power to charm I’m lying in the rain But I never wave bye-bye/But I try/I try…” The first Bowie song I can ever remember hearing, and I loved it immediately. In the clip from the French film Mauvais Sang, the “magic” of the radio gives Denis Lavant the opportunity to express his feelings for Juliette Binoche physically, turning his emotions into kinetic energy. When I saw the movie at the Film Forum in the summer of 2014, this scene was a standout because of how great it was to see Carax’s images paired with the sounds of “Modern Love” pouring from the theater’s speakers.
14. Guest appearance on British TV show “Extras” (2006) – “See his pug-nosed face/Pug, pug, pug, pug…” This ranks as one of my favorite television moments of the last decade. Ricky Gervais’s character, Andy Millman, has a chance encounter with David Bowie at a London pub and it does not go as well as Andy would have liked. The results: comic gold.
15. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (on album The Next Day, 2013) – “Stars are never sleeping/Dead ones and the living…” From what I recall, The Next Day was an album that came out of nowhere. It was David Bowie’s first since 2003, and after a decade I suppose most people thought he had retired. You can imagine how pleased I was that the songs were so good, particularly “Stars,” in which Bowie contemplates the poisonous nature of celebrity and media saturation. Plus Tilda Swinton co-starred in the music video, which led to this great photo of the two of them.
16. “Lazarus” (on album Blackstar, 2016) – “This way or no way/You know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now, ain’t that just like me?” I watched this music video last Friday, part of my annual ritual of listening to my favorite David Bowie albums and songs on his birthday. Like most people, I didn’t imagine that the video referred to Bowie’s actual state of health; I thought it was a fascinating artistic statement but not a representation of real sickness. (I figured he looked older and more worn because everyone ages, right?) As a reviewer wrote on iTunes, after having listened to previews of Blackstar in November: “Bowie will be a synonym of eternal change in music, a continuous hunt of proposals and new ways in sound.” I’m not entirely sure what “hunt of proposals” means, but I think the overall idea is the right one. He was defiant to the last, turning life into art and vice versa. And even when he was seriously ill, as we know now, he kept his off-kilter sense of humor. Vale, Starman.
I’ll close with one of my favorite photos of David Bowie (from back in the day) and two recent pictures – among the last ever taken of Bowie, I think – from a promotional photoshoot for Blackstar (photos by Jimmy King, courtesy of this Daily Mail article).