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Four years after his death, Bowie is going strong

The magazine version of Billboard recently published its “Top 125” in its 125th anniversary issue.  The rankings were apparently based on cumulative chart performance over the magazine’s history.  Not surprisingly, The Beatles came out on top.  Elton John was the number one solo performer.  The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Michael Jackson were all up there.  Further down the list were the likes of Eric Clapton, Elvis and Prince.  Still further down were Usher, Garth Brooks, John Denver and Olivia Newton John.  Maroon 5 was on the list, as was Nickleback and Boys II Men.  Who wasn’t on the list at all?  David Bowie.

Meanwhile, people keep giving me Bowie themed gifts (keep them coming).  In recent weeks, I have acquired a blank notebook decorated with alternating images of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane-era face, lightning bolts and stars.  I now have a book of Bowie quotes (from things he said, not from his songs), and a book about books that Bowie liked.  Think about that— a book with short commentaries on 100 books that Bowie liked.  These short essays are not simply book reviews — the first sentence of almost every essay includes the word, “Bowie,” so they are about how Bowie related to the books.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across the equivalent of such a book about books relative to anyone else, let alone Olivia Newton John.

I recently saw the Tina Turner musical.  She sings one Bowie song (“Tonight”), alludes to another that appears on her comeback album, “Private Dancer,” (“1984”), and at one point actually speculates that Bowie was about to walk through the door (sadly, he didn’t).  Apparently, you can’t tell the Tina Turner story without Bowie.  

Last night I went to see a Bowie show at a theater in Albany.  Five local bands played songs, mostly from the 70s and 80s (plus “Blackstar” and a few lines from, “I’m Afraid of Americans”).  There have been several in the area since his passing (which, sadly, usually ignore about 20 years of his career). 

It strikes me that there’s a contrast between Bowie’s status as pop star in life and his larger cultural impact, perhaps especially in death.  Is it possible that Bowie is bigger in death than in life?  Bowie was hugely successful in life.  According to Wikipedia, he sold more than 140 million albums, making him one of the world’s best selling musical artists.  He surely had many hits, though not as many #1s as the Billboard 125.  And he would even occasionally have Maroon 5-like moments of popular appeal (especially in the mid-1980s).

But Bowie’s true appeal was, and is, to people who feel apart from the rest of society, who by definition are a minority.  Bowie helped at least some of those outsiders feel comfortable being weirdos.  They felt and still feel a somewhat paradoxical solidarity in that.  Many of these hardcore fans resented Bowie for his pop turn in the 1980s and, since his death have zeroed in on the album, “Tonight,” as hateful.  There’s “Tonight” again— Bowie, Tina Turner and Iggy Pop all have reasonably well-known versions of this song, yet for many fans it is the title track of Bowie’s worst album.  While I agree that it is far from his best work, I think the animus has more to do with the idea that Bowie himself stopped being a weirdo and “sold out” during that period.    

Fortunately, the fan base has not rebelled against Bowie’s posthumous career success.  There is a market for a book about books Bowie liked.  There is a market for multiple Bowie shows in Albany, NY.  There is a market for “new” live albums culled from Bowie’s thousands of concerts.  All of this is for the good.

Death sometimes leads to a spike in record sales, I guess, but with the exceptions of Elvis and John Lennon, I’m not sure how many others have penetrated the culture the way Bowie has after death.  Maybe it was the case years ago, but I don’t see society trying to squeeze more out of the legacies of Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain the way it is with Bowie.  Maybe I’m just looking for it, but those all have become symbols for their time.  That they died young froze them to a moment.  Hendrix was famous for four years in life— there was never a 1989 comeback album for him, let alone 50 years worth of music, fashion and showmanship.  In this respect, I am seeing something similar with Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.  Their feud is the subject of season three of the, “Slow Burn,” podcast.  Both rappers, whose music I am not well-versed in, may have become more famous in death than in life, but the podcast sort of cements them as figures from the 1990s.  All of them had very different types of death than Bowie.

George Harrison, Prince, Tom Petty all died after amassing enormous catalogues.  Surely, they have all been celebrated in death.  I have seen some Prince-themed merchandise since his death, but his estate seems to be acting squirrelly about his unreleased materials, so, unless I’m missing it, there hasn’t been an outpouring of previously unknown or little-known Prince music, as there has been with Bowie.  In the long run, I suspect this will diminish Prince’s legacy.  By the time some of his unreleased materials is made public, there will probably be less general interest.  From time to time there’s a “new” Hendrix release, but that type of thing goes almost without notice.  Bowie remains king of “Record Store Day,” because he’s had some sort of live album, demo album, or something repackaged every time.  As for George Harrison and Tom Petty (both of whom are on the Billboard list), their music lives on, but I’m not seeing their faces on too many blank notebooks.

Part of all this has to do with Bowie, in life, presenting more than music alone.  He made movies,  was a fashion icon, put on shows that were as much performance art as concerts and tried to stay on top of trends ranging from music styles to cultural phenomena like music videos and the internet, and even investing (if you don’t remember “Bowie bonds,” Google that term).  Perhaps most significantly, Bowie saw his death coming and stage-managed his exit, especially with his final album, “Blackstar.”  As far as I know, this was unique, but despite the originality of a planned public death (that wasn’t a suicide), it wouldn’t have worked had the album not been solid.  Fortunately, “Blackstar” is great…it even makes some of the retrospective shows like the one I saw last night.  

Finally, in death, Bowie can be whatever anyone wants him to be.  Bowie, husband of Iman and loving father coexists with Bowie the gay icon.  Bowie hadn’t performed as Ziggy Stardust for decades, but today Ziggy is back as a Barbie Doll, emoji and Lego character.  In death, all of Bowie’s personas have come back to life.    

How long will this last?  How long before the cornucopia of music, merchandise, books, documentaries, cover band concerts, museum shows and everything else Bowie-related dries up?  It really never stopped for Elvis, so there’s reason to hope.  I’ve written before that while Bowie felt at home in space, time was not his friend.  Maybe, in the end, he was wrong about that.  


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