The most glaring problem that David Bowie posed to music reviewers, it seems, were that his albums varied so much in style, approach, influences. The Thin White Duke was a manically and magnificently eclectic as many great artists have and are, quickly moving onto to the next set of projects and the fresh set of ideas and techniques they entail. Those of us inclined to classify musicians into categories with definitions that sharply defined (and limited) a discussion of an artist's range had a hard time with Bowie, who didn't play their game. Bowie didn't easily fit into existing catagories that made discussing and judging an artists work a simpler task. Bowie rather took over genres, changed, destroyed them, created entirely new ways of thinking about pop music altogether. He was one of those who didn't change the game as much as blow it up. Anyone desiring to be taken seriously since his arrival on the big stage , artist and critic, had to rethink their game.
Bowie was his own man, listened, read, and viewed what it was he liked in the broad spectrum of the arts and literature and, surely,brilliantly. He brought the elements to bear on the music created, which was mesmerizing, challenging, subtly, artfully layered with a crosscurrent of musical influence. His genius, above all the other talents he possessed, was as a synthesizer. Apart from most other rock musicians who took from a variety of sources but seldom rose above the feeling of being merely clever and, Bowie, in fact, produced something new. Rock, rhythm and blues, folk, Kurt Weil, science fiction, William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Philip Glass, Philly soul, musical theater, Blue Note-style jazz, the proto-punk of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges--these were sources that caught Bowie's ear and which he brought together in relationships that, in their best expression, gave us a stirring, unsettling, daunting form of pop music that was of itself, a stand-alone body of work that influenced artists to come.
There seemed to be nothing he wouldn't try, and the results were not always his most captivating work. I wasn't a hardcore fan either, and was, in fact, annoyed by what I regarded as his pretentious manner. He seemed, in some sense, an eclectic master-of-none. But although not an instrumental virtuoso nor a composer/lyricist of dazzling harmonic and poetic gifts, he radiated the aura of the divinely inspired amateur, the savant who could be figured out how matters worked musically and theatrically. He applied what he knew, bits and pieces and whole swaths of information about varying aesthetic principles and the styles that fall within the standards, and composed something unique. New sounds emerged, new ways of applying the eternally persistent rhythm of popular music took hold. I remember a caffeine-fueled bull session in the Mesa College Cafeteria in the early to mid-Seventies when I offered to the late Reader music critic Steve Esmedina, a Bowie partisan, that the future Thin White Duke hadn't had an original musical idea so far in his career. Blubbo, his preferred endearment, didn't argue the point, stating smartly that what's fascinating, exciting, worth talking about in hipster circles and beyond was his particular genius as a synthesizer of genres and emerging trends and taking command of the materials like any true artist would, deconstructing, reshaping, fusing styles and sensibilities together into new kinds of sounds, the influences intact and vital-- Broadway musicals, hard rock, funk and disco grooves, experimental electronics, William Burroughs and Bertolt Brecht--while having Bowie's characteristic imprint on it all. My smart-ass assertion was false from the start, since what David Bowie was creating fusion music in the truest sense of what “fusion” is, taking different elements together and coming up with something new, previously unseen or unheard. I could go for the obvious Miles Davis comparison that's lurking in the wings of this career praise, but instead I'll stay with the deservedly much-discussed element of style and fashion in the late artist's work and say that he was one of those creatures radiating the personality that could try on any outlandish article of fashion from any designer's rack and wind up owning the style, making it his; something of great value was added when he liked a style and wanted to work with it.
The famous quote attributed to Ritchie Blackmore, “the amateur borrows, the professional steals” is instructive. The amateur treats what they've borrowed with too much gentleness and respect, as though they might drop the expensive China they've dared lay a finger on. The results are a species of gutless pretentiousness that glutted an awful lot of art rock in the post -Sgt. Pepper years, music by those who hadn't an idea what they were doing nor the imagination (or nerve) to pretend they did.
The Thief likes something and just takes it without permission, absorbs into his or her being until it becomes part of their nervous system, adding their licks, reshuffling the influx of music styles heard, assimilated, until there is a sound where constituent parts of rock drums, jazzy keyboards, atonal guitar skronk, horn funk and Euro serial music emerges, a sound that hadn't roamed over the airwaves or blasted the clubs and concert halls until the moment when the Thief, the absconder of musical forms, decides that he or she is finished in the creation and releases into the world, fresh, loud, moving as no music before it. This is what Bowie had done, loving art enough to abuse the formalism that defined the length and limitations of a genre and make them do more than most had assumed possible. We are living in a world of music that has been formed in large measure by Bowie's decades-long search for new music he wanted to work with. But living long enough to know better has its benefits, certainly, in that I found myself liking quite a bit of what Bowie was putting out. If the whole Spiders From Mars period seemed and arch, overwrought and lumpy collection of influences associated by force of will rather than inspiration, inspiration came soon afterward; the songs became looser, his choice of collaborators was unexpected and gave us music that was unlike that we'd heard before, his sense of what styles were emerging was always ahead of the curve. Best of all, he was one of those who could not just bring unlike elements together; rather he fused them in the true meaning of the word “fuse”, he made something new, unique, unlike anything else. Bowie was pretentious to a degree, but his, after all, was a career of making what he imagined become real through music. He was an artist, a master of artifice, a man who, though revealing little in the way of self-revelation or even an arguable view of the world listeners could construe as a philosophy, Bowie's tales of skewed characters relating the consequences of their life in a world malformed by each one of the seven deadly sins had a lasting, lingering effect all the same.
He wrote for effect, and the effect was profound. Even so, his music had many more hits than misses and even the lesser efforts, the slightest of his concepts, demanded attention and truly did not bore, the cardinal sin any popular artist can commit. It is Bowie's greatest work we will be playing for the years to come, the decades yet to pass; his influence will be felt in much of the pop music yet to be written, sung, recorded and sung again by young men and women looking for a hero. His influence, I think, is nearly as extensive as that of Elvis, of the Beatles, of Dylan. He prepared popular music for the 21st century in more ways than I can count now. His loss is a major one. RIP.