Yesterday’s announcement that David Bowie has left us after an eighteen-month battle with cancer has broken hearts around the world. The sixty-nine year old performer seemed almost ageless, capable of re-inventing himself countless times — the cover of this 1990 compilation album (Changesbowie) capturing only a fraction of the faces of Bowie.
Although his music was often morbid, Bowie remains so much more alive than many of his peers. While contemporaries could barely choke out shadows of their past accomplishments (how many songs from A Bigger Bang did Stones fans clamor for on last year’s “Zip Code” tour?), Bowie was still releasing new material up until last week.
His latest release, Blackstar, just hit stores in the US. Its producer Tony Visconti has described the record as “a parting gift.” (And sorry folks, we’re sold out of Blackstar until Wenesday!)
The Rolling Stones themselves posted pictures of Bowie with the band, and wrote, “As well as being a wonderful and kind man, he was an extraordinary artist, and a true original.” Madonna has posted that she was devastated by the news and that Bowie had changed her life. One of the most moving tributes came from collaborator Iggy Pop, whose own career was deeply influenced by his collaboration with Bowie. “David’s friendship was the light of my life,” he wrote. “I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is.”
The BBC’s obituary perhaps best described the extraordinary nature of Bowie’s half-century career in pop music:
David Bowie was the Picasso of pop. He was an innovative, visionary, restless artist: the ultimate ever-changing postmodernist.
David Jones’ father ran a nightclub. His mother was a waitress. He wanted to be a pop star in his pre-teens, when his father brought home a box of 45s by American artists: Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard. Of the last Bowie later told a reporter, “I had heard God.” Like the Beatles he cut his teeth in skiffle groups, but his palate was expanded when his half-brother introduced him to jazz and he purchased a plastic saxophone.
Bowie played saxophone and sang in a succession of blue-based rock bands: the Konrads, the King Bees, the Mannish Boys, the Lower Third, the Buzz, and Riot Squad.
With the King Bees, Bowie made his recording debut on June 5th, 1964 with a single for Vocalion Pop called “Liza Jane.” The single didn’t sell. A year later the band’s producer, Leslie Conn, told his mother it would be okay to throw the remaining copies which he had stored in her garage into the garbage. Today the remaining copies sell for more than $2000 when they appear online.
Collectors without that kind of cash can find “Liza Jane” on the retrospective compilation set Nothing Has Changed (but only on the CD version). Bowie was not undetermined by the single’s sales, and recorded a second record with the Mannish Boys. “I Pity the Fool” wasn’t a hit either, although it did have the distinction of featuring a young session musician named Jimmy Page on guitar, as well as the first writing credit for Davey Jones on the b-side, “Take my Tip.”
These were the only singles released by the King Bees and the Mannish Boys. Bowie had moved on to form a new group, the Lower Third. Now being produced by Shel Talmey (who was also producing early singles by the Kinks and the Who), Davey Jones and the Lower Third drifted away from the American R&B base of his early bands towards the British mod scene. The Lower Third released two singles on Pye Records, and Bowie released two more in the coming year.
The third single for Pye Records, “Do Anything You Say,” was the first record credited to David Bowie. He changed his name because he’d grown tired of people mistaking him for Davy Jones of the Monkees, borrowing his new surname from the American pioneer Jim Bowie.
None of the Pye singles charted, and at one point Bowie announced he would retire from singing to study mime at a prominent London performing arts center. Fortunately, he never gave up.
For whatever its worth, the b-side to that last single, “I’m not Losing Sleep,” has always been our favorite of the early Bowie songs. All of them have appeared on various re-issues (like the EP pictured) and compilation albums and discs.
David Bowie’s self-titled debut album was released by Deram Record on the same June 1967 day on which record shoppers found Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the new arrivals bins. The album failed to chart and received poor reviews, although fans today note in it embryonic themes which would appear in Bowie’s albums for decades — these include messianic figures, generational conflicts, a morbid preoccupation with death, and androgyny.
Again, David Bowie didn’t give up. Two years later he approached Mercury records with a demo recording for a song which would become his first hit, “Space Oddity.” After securing a contract, Bowie asked Beatles producer George Martin to work on the track but was turned down. Even Tony Visconti, who would produce Bowie’s Mercury debut and dozens of his albums over fifty years, didn’t like the song.
Still undeterred, Bowie recorded the song on the same day the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon, and when released a month later (can you imagine that turn-around time today?) it was a hit in the UK. The album, unfortunately, did not fare as well with fans.
Bowie has re-visited “Space Oddity” more than nearly any other song in his catalog, including several sequels leading up to the title track of last week’s new LP, Blackstar.
Over two more albums Bowie continued to find his voice, and struggled to find an audience. Fortunately, the albums allowed him to tour the US, an experience which offered inspiration for his changes. The Man Who Sold the World pushed his androgynous personal further and introduced a heavier sound. His next record,Hunky Dory, introduced his infatuation with the Velvet Underground. It was through emulating Lou Reed, as well as Iggy Pop, that Bowie invented the persona which would finally produce the hit album which made him a superstar: Ziggy Stardust was born.
It took David Bowie eight years of hard work — touring, performing, recording — to finally achieve the success he envisioned. And that’s what we really admire, looking back on his career this morning. Most of our favorite David Bowie songs came from years later, and as Gen Xers our introduction to him was more through his performance as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth than “Let’s Dance.”
We hardly believed the news when they played “Starman” on MPR this morning. Its hard to see David Bowie as anything but ageless, if not timeless. The enormous influence of the albums Bowie made beginning with Ziggy Stardust can’t be overstated — and we’re sure there will be pages and pages of accolades posted online this week — but its his slow climb to success we find really inspiring. He worked hard to find his place in this world (and out of this world). Thinking about that this morning and searching for our copy of that EP pictured above, we were reminded of a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca (translated here by William Jay Smith):
A Song Sun
In cold gay
the Griffon bird
was clothed in gray.
And there from little Kikiriki
whiteness and shape
were taken away.
To enter the cold gray
I painted myself gray.
And how I sparked
in the cold gray!