This article was first posted in Smashpipe magazine on Jan. 11, 2016
David Bowie Was The Most Human Alien Ever to Fall to Earth
By Tony Sokol
I woke up this morning, Monday, January 11, 2016, to the news that David Bowie had died. I didn’t quite take it in right away, for some reason it wasn’t quite the shock I thought it would be. By mid-morning one of my oldest friends, Ian Corcho, showed up, shell-shocked, without a guitar. He’d been sitting outside in his car. He was grieving.
“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer,” Bowie’s family said in a statement. Bowie was 69, a mystical number.
Bowie was an idol to me, but he felt like a very close friend and it seemed he’d warned us that he was passing on, even though he made no specific press announcement. Bowie had a reputation for being very secretive, but behind the makeup and the ch-ch-ch-changes, he was one of the most open and nakedly honest musicians in rock and roll. Bowie did tell us in the song and video for Black Star, his drum n bass-driven return and farewell to music.
Bowie told us everything in his songs, the things he couldn’t say in words, he turned into sound, whether it was creaky saxophones or polyrhythms that hit outside the beat, Bowie told the absolute truth, even when he was lying. For all his extraterrestrial works, he was the most human alien ever to fall to earth.
Bowie was one of the greats, up there with the Beatles, Elvis Presley – whose birthday he shared, Tchaikovsky, Amelia Earhart, Picasso and Lon Chaney. Bowie appeared as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, a Goblin in Labyrinth, a vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, and a POW with the kiss of death Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and not-quite-mad scientist Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 magical mystery feature The Prestige. He also starred on Broadway as human curiosity Joseph “John” Merrick in The Elephant Man.
David Jones was born in the Brixton section of south London, on January 8, 1947. Before he played Andy Warhol in Basquiat, he started his artistic path as a visual artist. He studied art at Bromley Technical High School, briefly going to Croydon School of Art. David released his first single “Liza Jane” when he was 17 years old and was still called Davie Jones and playing with the King Bees. In 1966, Davie Jones changed his name to Bowie because a British singer and actor named Davy Jones was playing in a band called The Monkees who all over the TV and the radio. Bowie, who took his name from the Bowie knife, was going in a different direction. For six decades he changed direction.
I didn’t work all day, I hadn’t realized I was taking a mourning day off. I just opened this word document and waited for one of my bosses to tell me to write something, occasionally typing odd facts like Bowie would occasionally write from random phrases he would scribble on tiny pieces of paper that he would paste together into lyrics. And I listened to Bowie with my friend. Every couple of songs we’d re-watch the video for “Blackstar.” I’d written a lengthy explanation of the piece for another zine and passed it off as a birthday present he gave to himself.
I wrote the piece in a celebratory frame of mind, but felt a creeping sadness as I listened to the music, read the words and watched the music video. I had a feeling he was telling us something and it had nothing to do with his return to music. I remembered that Bowie had had a heart attack and saw in a headline that he’d had six or seven heart attacks while making his Blackstar album.
“Something happened on the day he died, Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside, somebody else took his place, and bravely cried I’m a blackstar. How many times does an angel fall? How many people lie instead of talking tall? He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd. I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar. I’m not a popstar. I’m not a marvel star. I’m a blackstar.”
When the song “Lazarus” was released a few days ago, I had a similar queasiness. Leave it to Bowie to announce his death like that. When his The Next Day album came out after a ten-year silence, Bowie didn’t make any announcement until a few days before it dropped. He recorded the album in secret and switched studios when rumors leaked. It was produced by Bowie’s long-time friend Tony Visconti, the multi-instrumentalist from Brooklyn who also produced Bowie’s parting album and had been with him for years. The album hit number two on the U.S. Billboard charts, Bowie’s highest debut in America.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now. Look up here, man, I’m in danger. I’ve got nothing left to lose. I’m so high it makes my brain whirl. Dropped my cell phone down below. Ain’t that just like me? By the time I got to New York I was living like a king. Then I used up all my money. I was looking for your ass.”
Bowie was the nazz with a God-given ass that could do the bump with Mick Jagger even while separated by whole continent. Bowie was the reason I started trying to make a serious noise on guitar. I was nine when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars came out in 1972 and when I heard the line “she wants my honey not my money, she’s a funky thigh collector” I wanted that job.
Bowie played various instruments and sang in a bunch of voices in several bands before he signed with Mercury Records. Space Oddity came out in 1969. The album is best known for its title, what later came out to be the story of some junkie astronaut. But Bowie was achingly honest track in the song “Letter to Hermione.”
I picked up The Man Who Sold the World album in the cut-album section of a record store for $1.99. The album had the song “All the Madmen,” which foretold the confessions of a lad, insane. By 1975, Bowie was taking enough medicine to bring him back to earth as the vaguely fascist Thin White Duke, playing blue and brown eyed soul for Young Americans. He got his first number one hit by trading on the “Fame” of future American, John Lennon, who came up with the riff in a jam with Earl Slick but famously told Bowie to play something else at the album release party.
Bowie is often called the father of the British glam rock movement with Roxy Music and Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, writing Mott The Hoople’s glam theme “All the Young Dudes,” transforming Lou Reed and peanut buttering up the raw power of Iggy Pop (“David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is,” Iggy Pop tweeted.) He caved in under pressure to collaborate with Queen, and thereby unwittingly with Vanilla Ice, and danced with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and “Let’s Dance” in 1983. But Bowie was, at heart, a prog artist. His Low soundscapes with Eno and the funky thumping of Tony Levin’s fingers and sticks were far afield from his work with Soupy Sales kids in the band Tin Machine. I mean, who else could scream “shut up” at Robert Fripp?
Bowie is often called a chameleon, but nothing could be further from the truth. He never blends into the background, except when he’s just part of the mix on the rhythm track and even then he punctuates his strums with staccatos or blows his sax with lips too tight. The title of what appears to be his last album, the seven-song suite Blackstar, conjures images of darkness on darkness, obscured in a dark sky, but it burns deep because it is honest. He’s sung about death so much, from his earliest rock and roll suicides through his “We Are The Dead” anti-sex anthem on Diamond Dogs, his take on the George Orwell novel 1984, up to the visions of his bandaged eyes that he released a few days before his death, that death isn’t new or shocking. I prefer to think of it as the next phase of his artistic evolution.
“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.” – Tony Visconti.
Bowie was closer to the Golden Dawn than the overman, but his TV, she worked fine. Bowie is survived by Iman and their teenage daughter Alexandria, and Zowie Bowie, his son with Angie Bowie, who changed his name to Duncan Jones.
Somebody lied, but I think it’s hip to be alive.
* thanks for teaching me to play. Me on all the instruments same day as learning