As contemporary stars further and further indulge themselves in their own words and their own image and in their own tomfooleries simply to achieve some minor ubiquity, Bowie has instead decided to stand back and stay quiet, allowing his quietude to speak for him. After five decades of constant, prolific, and relentlessly progressive omnipresence, Bowie is changing the musical landscape once again by simply lingering in the shadows.
And now, after ten years, a mere rustle from Bowie is a spectacle. He need not speak anymore, as he lets others do it for him: musicians, critics, fans, acquaintances, as Bowie relentlessly keeps his distance, further fueling his own legend with others’ words and their interpretations.
And as they carry on with their stories and their anecdotes and their endless musings, Bowie suddenly reappears after an entire decade of quietude – again without words and without warning. An album is announced, songs are released; yet Bowie still seems far away, still quiet.
It is haunting. Only a master like David Bowie could transform silence into ubiquity, almost mocking the artifice of celebrity by doing so, while never straying from the quality of his art.
As The Next Day approaches, it seems fitting to allow the Internet to guide us through the many guises of the multidimensional artist, from the rise of Ziggy Stardust to the winding cocaine-stocked collapse of the Thin White Duke, and the subsequent veneers that followed: the bold and offbeat Berlin hero soaked in electronica, the chic yet wavering disco giant, the spurned and doleful industrial avant-gardist, and finally, Bowie as himself – or at least what seemed to be his most genuine transfiguration: an elegant elder looking back, apprehensive of his future and his mortality.
D. A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973)
Ziggy Stardust’s descent onto Earth lasted only a year, and as his legend goes, it took only a short while for the gaudy extraterrestrial to be torn to pieces by his fame and his celebrity.
Bowie’s most successful album at the time was revolutionary because it heralded an era of unbuckled sexuality, as Ziggy called on to the freaks and the outcasts of the world and allowed them a freedom that they had, until then, been so ruthlessly denied.
Pennebaker’s film chronicles the last stop of the Ziggy Stardust tour at the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, where right before the climatic Rock ‘N Roll Suicide, Bowie shocked the unsuspecting audience and his fellow musicians that the show was to be Ziggy’s last.
The red-haired otherworldly creature was tearing Bowie apart from the inside, and Bowie felt his self conceding to his own creation. Ziggy was killed off, yet he continued to linger and simmer inside Bowie, as his life began to dwindle along with his psyche.
Cracked Actor (1974)
And then, Bowie cracked.
His 1974 relocation to Los Angeles proved venomous, as he further spiraled into solitude and cocaine-addled paranoia with his weight dwindling and his demons swelling and strengthening.
The BBC’s documentary film, Cracked Actor, accompanied Bowie during his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, and documented the sickly Bowie as he sipped on milk and indistinctly muttered to the camera about himself and his career.
The distressing era also resulted in 1976’s Station to Station, a record that Bowie himself does not recall making. While Station to Station is suffused with shimmering and lively dissonance, it is the hush of Cracked Actor that proves afflicting, as he cracks and cracks and as the camera relentlessly carries on in capturing his self-destruction.
Live in Tokyo (December 12th, 1978)
After a concert in Los Angeles, Bowie came across the author Christopher Isherwood, whose long residency in Berlin had fostered some of his greatest literary works as well as a first hand experience of the rise of Nazi Germany. Bowie probed Isherwood about the city, before finally becoming convinced that Berlin would be an ideal place for him to recuperate from his unpleasant brush with Los Angeles.
In 1976, Bowie, along with Iggy Pop, began an eighteen-month residency in Berlin, so as to purge himself of his demons and of his addiction. His stay in Europe, and especially West Berlin, fostered his most seminal musical works: Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
Much of Low channeled Bowie’s solitude and psychosis in Los Angeles, and it proved to be his most harrowing work, as he stripped himself of the gimmicks of his former self, and searched for catharsis in his new and experimental sonic endeavor.
Bowie’s 1978 concert in Tokyo showcases some of this magnificent Berlin work. He is more focused here, unadorned of ostentatious veneers, and the tormenting distress seems to be slowly melting away.
Serious Moonlight (1983)
David Bowie was to the 1970s what the Beatles were to the 1960s. He broke new ground, challenged social taboos, and made his mark on the popular culture with quaint characters and momentous pieces of music.
After the superb Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Bowie chose to tread the waters of the mainstream. He chose to dabble in disco, and after an entire decade of dissenting against the times and fostering new trends and fashions, he chose to become a part of what already pervaded in the culture.
It proved to be Bowie’s most unrewarding period, as he found himself manufacturing music rather than writing them. It wasn’t honest anymore, and for an artist that methodically drenched himself in artifice with particular aims and aspirations, his move into the mainstream was merely a downhill plod.
Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour was bombastic and theatrical and energetic, yet it lacked honesty, and it lacked purpose. It would take Bowie an entire decade to find his footing again.
Dissonance Tour (1995/1996)
Tin Machine was formed by Bowie with Tony Sales, Hunt Sales, and Reeves Gabrels in 1988, but the democracy of a musical collective failed to suit Bowie’s artistic egoism, and the band disbanded in 1992.
The split marked the beginning of Bowie’s creative resurgence, as he began to dabble in the avant-garde and industrial music of the mid-1990s. Yet his artistic standing had deteriorated so much after his decade-long dally with the mainstream that he failed to recapture his cultural sway of the 1970s.
He began to associate himself with one of the most glowing musicians of the industrial movement, Trent Reznor, and though pair’s impressive Dissonance Tour failed to catch the attention of those already-disenchanted with Bowie, it was a stark, daring, and phenomenal spectacle, as the two, so similar in their artistry, dowsed themselves in sullen soundscapes and so passionately basked in their ingenuity as opposed to mere fashionability.
Live at Olympia, Paris (July 1st, 2002)
Outside, the ambitious 1995 record that showcased Bowie’s immersion in the avant-garde, was met with a cold-shoulder, and so was Earthling, the experimental album that followed. Yet the public’s refusal to accept the middle-aged Bowie as a symbol of gloaming and iniquity seemed to foster a new beginning for the Bowie’s ever-changing artistic temperament. Gimmickry, at his age, no longer seemed like an appropriate tool in signifying mystique and complexity, regardless of the quality of the music itself and the showmanship involved.
Bowie seemed to finally settle into his age with the undervalued ‘Hours…‘, but it was the record that followed that proved to be his most honest since Low, and one of his most striking. Heathen was steeped in sincerity, and Bowie’s music was as bare as it had ever been.
The record ushered in a new era for the artist – a neo-classical era that was a bit more composed, yet nuanced all the same. What Bowie’s career seemed to require at that point wasn’t a wider array of glitzy or dim-lit characters, but the man himself – or at least an ostensibly more transparent version of him.
Sound and Vision Documentary (2003)
As Bowie further peeled away his theatrical and multicolored veneers, and began to simply embrace his contemporary standing as a gracefully aging artist, the public too began to receive his sincerity and elegance with a newfound eagerness.
No longer did Bowie seem astray in an ever-changing musical milieu. He had a place now, especially reserved for him, and his legend was finally being appreciated.
A Reality Tour (Vienna, 2003)
Heathen and Reality demonstrated a splendid and natural growth for the aging artist, and Bowie’s A Reality Tour modestly aimed to embrace his age and his gradually emerging modern image as an elegant and magnetic musical icon. He’d stand on stage as a merited virtuoso, stylishly dressed in a suit and tie, and he’d speak to his audience, and he’d look back on his musical past and present, and he’d smile a thankful smile between each number.
After twenty odd years of trying to rediscover his standing in the musical world, he had found it in the most effortless of places: He simply had to be himself, and give his audience at least the idea that they were finally seeing through this enigmatic artist always veiled by his own mystique.
But A Reality Tour also proved strenuous for Bowie. Ceaseless travel and the tour’s astonishingly extensive and spirited performances took a physical toll. On June 25th, 2004, in in Scheeßel, Germany, after a series of recurrent pains, Bowie was diagnosed with a severely blocked coronary artery, and went into surgery the day after. The remainder of the tour was cancelled, and gradually, Bowie too faded into a decade long silence.
For ten years, it really did seem that David Bowie had said goodbye.
David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust (2012)
As Bowie’s silence lingered, his absence was felt more and more. His works were pondered over, as a way to compensate for his truancy. Ziggy was memorialized on his fortieth anniversary, and it seemed that the world had finally accepted that Bowie was never to return.
No one ever knew that only a few months later, he’d creep out of the shadows and announce so much with so little words.