January 8, 2020


Happy Birthday David Bowie, born David Jones on this day in 1947. Like many teenagers in the early 1960s, David Bowie found inspiration in American music and culture. He took up saxophone and guitar and formed a string of bands, playing blues and rock covers for parties and local entertainment. A keen student of graphic design, art, and movement, Bowie constantly synthesized his interests and disparate styles to express his own unique vision. More below. 

If an artist is always in the state of becoming, Bowie spent a lifetime exploring- trailblazing the outer limits and sending back transmissions of things to come. He stayed in the fast lane for forty years, recording albums, touring, and acting, until a heart attack on stage in 2004 made him take stock. He spent a nine-year hiatus to recoup and to be a stay-at-home dad (he and wife Iman had a daughter in 2000). But Bowie surprised everyone in 2013 with an outstanding new album called The Next Day, which was released during a flurry of art shows and a massive retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A exhibit celebrated his career in music, fashion, graphic arts, fine art, and set design, all of which which Spy Vibers can see in the exhibit catalog, David Bowie Is.  He recorded The Next Day in secret- his first album in ten years- and it quickly went to number one in charts around the world. The vibe of the record was energetic and experimental. Probably of interest to Spy Vibers, Bowie also seemed to mine his "Berlin period" with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop during the 1970s by re-exploring themes of the city, most notably in Where Are We Now? The cover image itself was a re-appropriated version of Heroes, made originally in 1977. Fans enjoyed spotting various references to the artist's past, including a connection between Five Years (Ziggy Stardust/1972) and the track, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. Besides its sweet echo of Presley's Heartbreak Hotel (Bowie and Elvis shared a birthday)the more interesting layer to this song was its thematic connection to tradecraft and the dirty business of espionage. One couldn't miss the allusions to dead drops, secrets, betrayal, and assassination. During promotion for The Next DayBowie starred in a video for another track, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), with the wonderful Tilda Swinton, who was also invited to give the opening speech for the exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Below: still from The Stars (Are Out Tonight).

Swinton herself had an artistic fascination with Berlin. She made an experimental film study of the Berlin Wall in 1988 called Cycling the Frame. Twenty-one years later she starred in a marvelous and meditative film that re-examined the presence -even in its absence- of the Wall called The Invisible Frame (2009). The film invited the viewer to travel with Swinton by bicycle along the scars and remnants of the Wall, an experience that became a long portrait of the city and of perceptions of identity and territory. Below: Bowie's The Next Day ala Berlin-era iconography Heroes

Bowie followed The Next Day with an album called Blackstar, which was released on his birthday in 2016. Sadly, he passed away only two days later at the age of 69. Speculations arose quickly that "blackstar" may have referenced his fight with cancer. That skinny 1960s Mod kid, who had once dreamed of becoming Little Richard's saxophone player -only to become the king/queen alien of glam, experimental oracle, actor, artist, designer, and cutting-edge pop star, David Bowie- was no more. No one could deny the message of his farewell video, Lazerus, in which he sang of mortality, donned one of his old costumes, climbed into a coffin-like wardrobe, and disappeared from the world. It was his creative way to say farewell to the persona of David Bowie. And then David Jones himself was gone. Below: still from the set of Lazerus

A final small batch of songs (No Plan) and a stage musical Lazerus (inspired by the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth) were released posthumously. Like many people, I still feel that it's difficult to reconcile Bowie's passing. It's been hard to imagine someone so creative, so prolific, and so forward-moving would ever stop. And although I can't quite understand a world without him, I know his creative spirit lives on in his work. When Tilda spoke about Bowie at the V&A, she talked about how he had been a kind catalyst for so many people to embrace their alternative identities and basically let their freak flags fly. I like to think that his own courage and individuality will continue to inspire young people to follow their own vision, whether it be about personal identity or about creative ideas. Below: The young Mod with so many miles still to go!

For Spy Vibers who have never explored the fascinating career of David Bowie, you have a lot to look forward to! Although it's difficult to choose a short list of his work, here is my "Essential Bowie." If 1960s-era material is a priority, check out the Deram album, David Bowie (1967) and the 1969 promo film, Love You Till Tuesday.

Screen: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), Labyrinth (1986), The Hunger (tv/1999-2000).

Docs: Ziggy Stardust, Ricochet, Reality Tour, Storytellers, Five Years, The Last Five Years, Finding Fame. 

Albums: Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), Ziggy Stardust (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979), Scary Monsters (1980), Baal (1981), Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), VH1 Storytellers (2001), Heathen (2002), The Next Day (2013). There have also been great sets released  over the past few years that offer deeper exploration, including Nothing Has Changed, Five Years, Who Can I Be Now?, A New Career in Town, and Loving the Alien. Below: Bowie in the 1960s. 

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