Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Loving the Alien: Remembering David Bowie (1947 - 2016)

David Bowie from one of the promotional stills shot for 1977's 'Heroes' album. There was always something extraterrestrial and freaky about The Man Who Fell to Earth. And it wasn't just his unequally-sized pupils.

"The song itself… is made up of juxtapositions and fragments of information. [It] doesn’t have a straightforward coherent message to it. None of the album has any message; it’s really a compression of information, it’s just information: make of it what you will... The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer."

-David Bowie on the track The Heart's Filthy Lesson from a promotional film for Outside, 1995

Loving the Alien: Remembering David Bowie (1947 - 2016)

There was always something freaky about David Bowie, wasn't there? And I don't just mean his unequally sized pupils that were the result of a childhood fight. Looking at photographs of him from the 1970s you're struck by just how... unusual this man looks. Thin face, craggy British teeth, thinner lips, and then your attention returns to those eyes again.

David Bowie, musician, actor, painter, and well-rounded extraterrestrial being died just days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar. In a career that spanned several decades and enough different artistic influences and costume changes to make your head spin, Bowie took music lovers and his fellow Outsiders on a wild ride.

His music often addressed hard subjects that many people shy from in polite conversation. Alienation, isolation, spiritual pain, and struggling with inner demons — what the late William S. Burroughs once referred to as, "the Ugly Spirit."

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
from 1972 was the album that really jump started the man's career. Before Ziggy, with his vivid red hair and unforgettable costumes, Bowie had been a long-haired folk and rock n' roll singer not widely known.

Post-Ziggy almost any serious music lover in North America and Europe could name at least one song from the albums that followed. Heroes, the title track from the album of the same name, was recorded at Das Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin during Bowie's time in the city. The studio's location was right next to the Berlin Wall, which divided the city from 1961 to 1989. Bowie watched his longtime producer Tony Visconti and a backing vocalist making out beside the wall as Bowie looked out from one of the studio's windows; this served as the song's inspiration.

The half German version of the song Heroes / Helden has always been one of my favourite Bowie tracks. I discovered it as a teenager living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Heroes' theme of lovers facing impossible odds has a power that's undeniable. It will remain one of Bowie's signature achievements.

In 2013 I had a chance to visit the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One of the pieces from the exhibit is Bowie's handwritten lyrics for Heroes. It was very moving to see the genuine article close enough to touch — separated from my hand by only the thinnest piece of Plexiglass.

Fast forward several years in the man's career to 1995's Outside concept album where Bowie played Nathan Adler, a detective out to solve a grisly art crime. My personal favourite song from that album is The Heart's Filthy Lesson. In the music video Bowie played up the idea of tribalism, body art, and a future where everyone belongs to his or her 'tribe.'

The 'Filthy Lesson' from the song, according to Bowie, is that our lives our finite: "I'm already 5 years older, I'm already in my grave, I'm already..."

David Bowie's career had too many highlights and songs that I love to mention in this short space. What impressed me most about the man is his continuing need to experiment and push the envelope artistically. He may have been singing to us as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, or another character. Repeated listens reveal the truth was in the lie. He used pain we all feel, no matter what walk of life you're from, and turned it into timeless art.

Lazarus, the music video for the single from Bowie's final album Blackstar was released on January 7 — just days before his death from Cancer. In the video we see Bowie sing, "Look up here, I'm in Heaven." People who know this kind of trivia will remember Lazarus as someone rising from the dead.

Bowie is lying on a bed with white bandages wrapped around his head - jacket buttons for eyes. Near the end he bolts upright and sings, "Oh, I'll be free. Ain't that just like me?" Before falling back onto the pillow. He is smiling throughout this moment.

Lazarus was his goodbye note to us.

Sitting here, looking out my window at the snow drifts outside, I'll tell you this:

I will always Love the Alien. Thank you, David.

Rest in Peace.

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