By the time I was introduced to David Bowie, he was regressing—transgressing against the transgression that had made him famous. Much as Dylan had gone Christian, Bowie was going straight: The former gender-bending sexual outlaw gave interviews in the early 1980s disavowing his earlier coming-out, saying he’d always been a “closet heterosexual.” Probably not coincidentally, his 1983 record Let’s Dance gave him his biggest chart hits ever, while the cut of his retro New Romantic suits became decidedly more butch than they’d been in the 1970s. As I didn’t much care for that record at the time anyway (I was an insufferable music snob in junior high), I didn’t give this apparent gay apostate much thought.
Luckily, cooler heads—or at least cooler kids—prevailed, and turned me on to the Bowie, or rather Bowies, who came before the reactionary Reagan-era model: the androgynous alien dispensation, of course, but also the funk Nazi, the punk clown, and, my favorites, the folkie fairy and the faux-Victorian novelty barker. These last two versions were key. That he’d changed clothes and characters so often was one clue to what he was up to, but the twee early Bowie—and when I later reevaluated his still unfolding career, the bouncy pop of the ’80s, too—were the Rosetta Stones that unlocked him. He was a showman; he was making theatre by other means. Bowie didn’t start as a rock ‘n’ roller any more than Dylan had started out aiming to be a folkie; it was just another medium for a restless, indomitable creative spirit. Even when he was rocking hardest, Bowie always treated rock ‘n’ roll as a branch of show business, as theatre—less a sledgehammer to destroy the previous generation’s culture than a program of sabotage, a body-snatching scheme that would allow him to use its tools, some of them forgotten or out of fashion (mime, drag, dada), to make something genuinely new.
He was no less an effective revolutionary for holding rock’s macho cult of authenticity at arm’s length; indeed, Bowie’s true legacy may be less in the ways he shook up and subverted mainstream culture, going on network talk shows to dish about bisexuality, than in the ways he challenged rock music’s default straight-bro libido. Though I personally slightly prefer his less-rocking periods (my favorite of his albums, if I had to choose, would probably be Hunky Dory and Low), I have long felt that, by giving us as convincing a portrait of a shape-shifting Dionysus as we will ever hope to see outside of ancient Greece, Bowie was the greatest rock star of them all.
And it wasn’t like Bowie’s embrace of the theatrical was a shallow or cynical ploy, or that under the onion-like layers of artifice there weren’t real tears, real anguish, true joy. In everything he was simply and fully an actor; as he once told Dinah Shore while promoting Station to Station, “I act the songs rather than sing them.” (You might as well just stop reading now and check out this clip from that show, if for no other reason than to witness the Thin White Duke comparing notes with the Fonz.) His own ventures into film and onto the legit stage further proved his acting mettle (though I regret to say I never saw him at it; the only time I saw him play live was in a forgettable arena-rock muddle called the Glass Spider Tour). And while I admit I was heartily disappointed by his musical Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop, my colleague Chris Jones has made a heartfelt case for reconsideration of the show’s peculiar semiotics in light of Bowie’s death.
It’s true of more rockers than is widely acknowledged (even by them), but it’s uniquely true of Bowie that his creative and interpretive work owed as much to 20th century art, literature, and theatre as to rock, pop, and music hall. It made perfect sense to discover, for instance, that he’d done a crazy bit of mime theatre in his youth; that he had intended many of the songs on the darkly brilliant concept album Diamond Dogs to be part of a stage adaptation of 1984 (I’ve often thought, still think, that it could be turned into a stunning piece of theatre as it is, a la American Idiot or Tommy); and that he had starred in a BBC staging of Brecht’s early play Baal.
The soundtrack of that last production is one I’ve long cherished—which is to say, I once owned it on LP. Since I’m too broken up personally, frankly, to write much more about what the work of David Robert Jones has meant to me (let’s just say, the world), and since many, many others have said and will say so much more about the same, I will close by sharing Baal‘s benedictory “Remembering Marie A,” both in its live rendition and in the lusher arrangement from the album. Brecht’s words—about the evanescent impermanence of life and the stubborn persistence of memory—never fail to fill me with heartsick wonder, and Bowie’s rendition (particularly in the lush album rendition) does the same.
It was a day in that blue month September
Silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade
I held her there
My love, so pale and silent
As if she were a dream that must not fade
Above us in the shining summer heaven
There was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up
And found that it had gone
And since that day, so many moons in silence
Have swum across the sky and gone below
The plum trees surely have been chopped for firewood
And if you ask, how does that love seem now
I must admit, I really can’t remember
And yet I know what you are trying to say
But what her face was like, I know no longer
I only know I kissed it on that day
As for the kiss, I long ago forgot it
But for the cloud that floated in the sky
I know that still and shall forever know it
It was quite white and moved in very high
It may be that the plum trees still are blooming
That woman’s seventh child may now be there
And yet that cloud had only bloomed for minutes
When I looked up
It vanished on the air