Art by Mark Vitullo
Read the rest of David Bowie Tribute Week here.
Brian Josephs is wondering what David Bowie and Freddie Mercury are up to.
I discovered David Bowie’s music the same way many black kids in Brooklyn have: with Bad Boy rhyming over it and Biggie doing his Lisa Stansfield impression. Some of us realized “Let’s Dance” was a better record; Bowie’s unabashed passion was more compelling than disaffected cool. We were then sucked into the Thin White Duke’s mythos and eventually got to its glittering center: 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
How does one write about a piece of art released decades before he’s born, and what is there to add when there’s already thousands of pages lauding one of our greatest musician’s greatest album? Let’s start with a fact: People dreamt in 1972, and they still do in 2016. Ziggy Stardust’s tale sticks because of how incandescent the fantasy is. The hook of “Moonage Daydream” is composed of sci-fi imagery that’s cartoonish on paper. Here, it’s not about the fictional elements but the sense of ecstasy they birth. Bowie’s power lies in his ability to will abstractions into shared, wholly human experiences.
Even with all its highs, Bowie’s opus doesn’t quite work without “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Ziggy Stardust is, by nature, free from sex, gender, and religious constraints. And yet he’s still your typical rock n’roll burnout. But the acoustic denouement morphs into another peak and Bowie starts working those vocal pipes. There’s the orchestral crescendo and the regal backing vocals as Bowie makes his final pleas: “You’re not alone/…Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.” It’s delivered with a force that breaks the loose, narrative fourth wall; he could be talking to Stardust or the audience. Or maybe the titular alien is the audience, an amalgam of their fantasies and the humanity that binds them.
I had Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and “Let’s Dance” on consistent rotation in the weeks leading up to Blackstar. After Bowie’s death, I immediately returned to putting “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on repeat. The song wasn’t my go-to motivational track, but at that moment, it was a coping mechanism. We had forgotten David Bowie was a human being. He just was. You feel that something’s amiss in the universe after such a loss. But the fact that he was a human adds further importance to his work.
Perhaps it’s time we take a break from believing David Bowie is this otherworldly figure and start looking at him as an ambassador of human potential. There’s his decades-long metamorphosis, and there’s the fact that he stood up for black artists. He had nothing to gain in that 1983 interview where he called out MTV for not playing black artists. The media must be “fair”; they, too, had potential because they were human. Race, sexual orientation, or what-have-you shouldn’t deny you of realizing it, and the existence of Bowie as this empathetic figure embodied this principle. If only he was Lazarus.