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NEW YORK, Jan 12, (Agencies): It was hardly a coincidence that David Bowie named his greatest hits collection “Changes.”
Bowie changed musical styles, fashion, even his name — from David Jones — in a relentless exploration of the artistic muse. More than any one sound or song, that shark-like ability to keep moving forward defined him.
Even his exit was an artistic statement. He released a striking video last week for his new song, “Lazarus,” that depicts him in an institutional bed, his eyes covered in gauze.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings in the song’s opening. A thin Bowie also appears dressed in a bodysuit that seems left over from the “Ziggy Stardust” years, retreating to a closet at the song’s end. The song, like the elegaic “Where Are We Now?” from 2013, has him confronting issues of mortality in haunting fashion.
We just never knew how close the end was. When it came on Sunday, Bowie had long since retreated from public view after a reported heart attack in the mid-2000s. He’d released no new music for a decade before 2013 and the subsequent “Blackstar,” released Friday. He gave no interviews in his last decade, and kept his 18-month cancer fight private.
Bowie quite literally seemed from another world in his early years. “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was a concept album about an alien bisexual rock star. With his makeup and orange hair, Bowie participated fully in an era of excess. The splendid songs poured out in the 1970s: “Changes,” “Starman,” “Suffragette City,” “Jean Genie,” ‘’Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans.” He wrote Mott the Hoople’s best-known song, “All the Young Dudes.”
The bodysuit ultimately proved confining. Bowie wasn’t the first artist to make stylistic shifts, but few did it with such aplomb. He delved into blue-eyed soul with his John Lennon collaboration, “Fame.” He moved to Berlin to explore a minimal, industrial sound with collaborator Brian Eno. And in the mid-1980s era of Big Albums, Bowie appeared in a smart suit with the invitation, “Let’s Dance.”
That album, which also included the hits “Modern Love” and “China Girl,” really marked the end of his mainstream success. Bowie kept moving, even if not all his explorations were rewarding; his 1990s band Tin Machine produced some unlistenable noise. The restlessness left him with a conflicted relationship with his old hits. He vowed to retire them after the 1990 “Sound and Vision” tour, but didn’t stick to that and performed them with grace and enthusiasm on tour a decade later.
He was soft-spoken with a very British politeness in our only meeting, a 2002 interview where he allowed himself a brief flash of pride.
“What I’m most proud of is that I can’t help but notice that I’ve affected the vocabulary of pop music,” he said then. “For me, frankly, as an artist, that’s the most satisfying thing for the ego.”
Everyone touched by Bowie’s music takes their own moment of inspiration. Kurt Cobain covered “The Man Who Sold the World” with Nirvana. Vanilla Ice repurposed Bowie’s collaboration with Queen, “Under Pressure,” into his biggest hit.
Personally, two recordings from 1977 will always stick out. One was Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, made for a television special filmed just five weeks before Crosby’s death. Crosby sang “The Little Drummer Boy,” while Bowie sang “Peace on Earth” in counterpoint.
The culture clash made it an immediate classic — the World War II era crooner with one of rock’s wildest personalities. It was hard to imagine them in the same room, let alone standing around a piano. Yet neither man looked down upon the other. Its beauty made the collaboration last, and it is heard every December.
That same fall, Bowie released “Heroes” from his sessions with Eno. The song starts quietly, Bowie singing over a droning, repetitive guitar figure, building gradually in intensity as his voice rises and he sings of a memorable but brief love affair. It’s a moment of majesty that never fails provoke chills.
“We can be heroes,” he sings, “just for one day.”
David Bowie had more than a day.
In June, 2002, David Bowie and his band were rehearsing in a Manhattan warehouse for an appearance on the show A&E’s “Live By Request.” An Associated Press reporter stopped by to speak to the affable, then-55-year-old musician. Here’s what he revealed:
“My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety — all of the high points of one’s life.”
“What I’m most proud of is that I can’t help but notice that I’ve affected the vocabulary of pop music. For me, frankly, as an artist, that’s the most satisfying thing for the ego.”
“If I have an option of playing something myself or turning it over to a qualified, card-carrying musician, I’ll usually opt for the latter. Then I’ll kick myself, because it never quite sounds the way I would have done it.”
“I don’t enjoy performing terribly much. Never have. I can do it and, if my mind’s on the situation, do it quite well. But five or six shows in, I’m dying to get off the road and go back into the studio.”
Playing old hits to pans:
“I capitulate every now and again and give them what they want but I get mad at myself because that’s not really what I do, or what I like. I’m very selfish about what I want to do, and as I get older I get more selfish.”
It’s perhaps not so surprising that the word “androgynous” was spiking on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary after David Bowie’s death was announced, as people looked up a word so commonly mentioned in connection with the rock star’s blazingly unique style.
But while the word aptly describes much of Bowie’s chameleon-like appeal, there was another, deeper association being mentioned by some in the aftermath of Bowie’s death: the idea that the singer was a crucial source of support — perhaps even to the point of saving lives — for youngsters uncertain about their identity or sexuality in an era when gender fluidity was much less accepted than it is today.
“David Bowie showed this queer kid from Baton Rouge that gender outlaws are cool,” wrote singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier on Twitter. “Androgyny=rock&roll, not a reason to kill myself.”
Gauthier, 53, explained in an interview that she’d stumbled upon Bowie’s famous Ziggy Stardust persona — the flame-haired, body-suited, sexually ambiguous alien rock star from his 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” — when she was 14 or 15. “I was clearly aware that I was a gender outlaw,” she said. “Being androgynous didn’t sit well in Baton Rouge in 1974 or 1975. I hung out with outsiders. Bowie gave them hope, and me hope.
“I do think his work saved thousands of gender-different kids,” Gauthier said. She added: “It wasn’t a matter of what he was saying or arguing, it was a matter of how he was appearing. It may have been a show, but it was authentic.”
“He showed us there was a bigger world out there,” Gauthier said.
While the specific words may have been different, similar thoughts — the idea of Bowie making those who felt somehow different feel more welcome — came from far and wide on Monday, a day after Bowie died at age 69 following an 18-month battle with cancer that was not publicly disclosed.
One of those expressing such thoughts was Madonna, who spoke of Bowie’s androgynous image as easing the way for her as a young person.
Sales of Bowie’s last album — released two days before his death from cancer — soared on Monday along with downloads of his greatest hits, testimony to the powerful appeal of a pioneer in pop culture and the music business.
Streaming giant Spotify said streams of Bowie’s music were up 2,700 percent on Monday, while the Official Charts Company in the UK said Bowie’s “Blackstar” album was headed to the top spot on the charts with sales of 43,000 since its Friday release.
Bowie, who produced hits such as “Ziggy Stardust” during a career featuring daringly androgynous displays of sexuality and glittering costumes, died at age 69 on Sunday.
He was the first recording artist to sell bonds, known as ‘Bowie Bonds,’ against his intellectual property and backed by future earnings of his music.
The bonds, which are now paid off, were bought by Prudential Insurance in 1997 for $55 million, and let Bowie retain ownership of his work rather than selling the copyright.
The model, constructed by investor David Pullman, was later adopted by artists such as James Brown and the Isley Brothers.
In an interview on Monday, Pullman estimated that Bowie’s estate could be valued upward of $100 million, in part because Bowie owned 100 percent of his music.