David Bowie was always someone else. Most “rebels”, in the popular culture sense of the term, fit into neat categories – outside the box, but inside another box. This works because teenagers, who glom onto pop culture with more sincerity than others, are somewhat conservative. Look at the average high school, and you’ll see everyone in their own box; the true rebel is alone, and outcast. David Bowie made being an individual, or more than one individual, seem cool. And that is rare.
Bowie took to his art with a completeness not often seen, and less rarely admired. Bob Dylan may wear different hats, but he is always Dylan at the core. Bowie is Bowie as well, but he made his different personae more a part of himself than Dylan ever has. Chameleon-like, some have said of Bowie, but that’s inaccurate. An actor equally at home in comedy, tragedy, as hero, villain, etc. could be called chameleon-like. But Bowie created the feeling – how true I cannot say – that he made these characters parts of himself. And they were not stock characters, either, but emerged from his own imagination. Again, Bob Dylan began by making himself into a folksinger in the Woody Guthrie mold, drawl and all, and went on from there, but the types are always recognizable. Bowie’s characters were originals. It’s a hard path to tread, especially if you seek commercial success in doing it. Few ever succeed, and in music such shape-shifting is even more rare.
I don’t mean to keep putting Bob Dylan in the lesser half of these comparisons. I was a Dylan fan when Bowie hardly registered on my senses, and probably will remain a greater admirer of Dylan to the end. Another comparison: Dylan always seems to be standing among us, singing to people, whereas Bowie is slightly apart, singing to the universe. Or am I aggrandizing in this whirl of emotion surrounding his death? Probably.
I was always aware of Bowie, from the half-dozen songs commercial radio would ever play. I knew he had a much deeper oeuvre than that, but I was looking elsewhere. I saw bits of his visual art – one thing he shares with Dylan – and saw him act. Little by little my appreciation grew. When his last album, Blackstar, was announced, I made a point of reading about it and decided it was time to really absorb the Bowie experience while he was still around. Then, this morning, he wasn’t anymore. He died on Sunday, Jan. 10, but I didn’t hear about it until today – insert the I-hate-Monday joke of your preference here.
So here I am, ill prepared, about to give Bowie proper attention, and trying to find words for thoughts and feelings I had never paid deliberate attention to. I can think of no more fitting tribute than to say he was an artist, not in the common sense, but in the sense for which museums are created. A keeper. An education. An inspiration.
I could have linked to hundreds of videos, but I chose Where Are We Now for the sense of loss and confusion so many die-hard David Bowie fans must be feeling. Also, because the video was made by artist Tony Oursler. Working with others, whether it was Oursler, Iggy Pop, the Muppets, etc., spoke to his flexibility. There was always a Bowie who would fit whatever you had in mind.