David Bowie went by many names: the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust and, initially, David Robert Jones. Each of those names, each of those personas, was vastly influential to musicians of all genres and generations, and — just days after Bowie’s 69th birthday and the release of one of his most stunning albums, Blackstar — they mourn his passing. Here, Talkhouse contributors offer their thoughts on David Bowie, his towering legacy and how those things affected their lives and art.
More tributes will be added to this post as they come in. Feel free to leave your own remembrances in the comments section below.
— the editors of the Talkhouse Music
When I went to see the David Bowie retrospective traveling the globe, which was then in Chicago, I discovered that he wanted to be a writer when he was a young, with no desire to be a performer. It made sense to me that he would approach performing and his persona from a conceptual practice, understanding the idea of projection, the back ’n’ forth unspoken dialogue between performer and audience. There is no one who did it better than Bowie, breaking thru the glass ceiling of gender roles and expectations for what is sexy and charismatic as a rock ’n’ roll icon, post John Wayne, bringing the idea of the “dandy” of eighteenth century France into contemporary life, bringing a focus on this new male identity set adrift with no apparent purpose since the demise of the silent cowboy type (who’s going to protect and take care of us womenfolk?), except free to be whatever he could imagine he could be, and taking us, his audience, along with him. The world has lost its most glittery son but the music and the imprint of Bowie on the world is forever.
— Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth, Body/Head), Los Angeles
In 1997, we in Sonic Youth were amazed when we got word from David Bowie, inviting us to perform with him onstage at Madison Square Garden in celebration of his 50th birthday. That he even knew who we were was amazing to us! We had been so inspired and influenced by his music for so long, and it was a huge thrill to join him in performance. Hanging out with him leading up to the concert, it was clear that he was still fully engaged and informed about all kinds of music and art going on around him, curious and open to new influences. Not many of his generation were tuned in to the kind of thing that we were doing, but he certainly was.
A few days before the show, we all trooped up to Connecticut for rehearsal. David had rented the Hartford Civic Center arena for the day so we could rehearse and get comfortable in a venue with a stage the same size as Madison Square Garden! He had asked our friend Tony Oursler to do some of his video projections as the stage set for the concert. Tony was a fellow artist-traveller who had directed our “Tunic” video a few years prior. David impressed us with his focus and his friendly and positive demeanor throughout a long day. He was excited, and certainly we were! We were only halfway thru our thirty-year career as a band at that time, while he was already past that mark, and obviously still going strong. A Radical Adult.
This morning, for some reason I woke unexpectedly at 6:00 AM and couldn’t sleep. I reached for my phone to check the New York Times, and was completely shocked — devastated! — to read the news. A new album, new theatre production, new musical directions — he was so active this last year. To realize that he was accomplishing all this while knowing his fate makes his recent accomplishments all the more inspiring.
— Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), New York, January 11, 2016
I met David Bowie when I was twenty-two, and like a baby goose imprinting on some fantastical winged creature, I took him as the model of what I ought to grow up to be. He is my ideal adult human artist.
He wore beautiful cologne. He read all world literature. He took time for everyone in the room. He remembered people’s names. He wore a plain T-shirt to a nice dinner (Owen Pallett writes about that dinner here). He sought out new music and evangelized when he liked something.
Arcade Fire played two songs with him for TV — his song “Five Years” and our song “Wake Up.” Earlier on the show, he sang “Life on Mars,” wearing a wrist bandage and a fake black eye. I saw him build a character and modulate that character with his voice and with small movements. I saw the distance between the artist off stage and on, and that the distance was an artistic creation, too — something to be played with.
I hear him playing with that distance on Blackstar, and it’s stunning and my God it’s heartbreaking. I wanted to see the next twenty years of David Bowie making art.
— Will Butler (Arcade Fire)
Three days ago, on your birthday, a day that I’ve sincerely and quietly celebrated every year, for at least twenty-five of them, ever since that Christmas when my visionary parents bought me the Sound and Vision box set on cassette, I waited all day long to listen to Blackstar. I can recall only one other time in history when I was so excited for the release of a new album by anybody, and that was three years ago, when you came back from exile, in your dry run for playing the part of Lazarus, with The Next Day.
It was agonizing to get through Friday, a busy day, without listening, but everything needed to be right. And come evening, so it was, and lights were extinguished, a candle was lit, all electronic distractions switched off, and my finest pair of headphones were lovingly, tremblingly affixed to my head. The royal treatment, reserved for the most rarefied of releases.
And what a forty minutes I had. I smirked, I gasped, I laughed out loud, I cried. It had been quite some time since I’d cried, I thought to myself, and it felt so good. They were tears of happiness, of my north star having come back to me, to all of us, for real, beggaring all belief, that The Next Day hadn’t been a red herring, that this was the harbinger of a few more masterpieces to come in the dim, amber-hued lightning bolt of your final years. How greedy of me.
It was such a lovely weekend. It was so thrilling, gratifying, vindicating, to witness the outpouring of love for you over the past few days. People were talking about you in a way I hadn’t ever experienced — as a person of the now, releasing vital, weird, hip music. The way it must have used to be for you. Sharing links to your new videos on social media. Bringing up the new record at parties. Getting texts from people: “Can you believe this new Bowie album?”
Everybody loved you — and I know that now more than ever — but I’d never known such real-time appreciation for something you’d done. You deserved it, all of it.
That’s what has made the past fifteen hours or so so difficult. You’d just come back to us.
In the end, all I have is gratitude.
Thank you for putting on the greatest show of my life when I drove to Seattle and back by myself, buying a hideously overpriced ticket from a scalper out front. And thank you for waving when I waited outside of your tour bus for three hours.
Thank you for October 4, 1999, the day that I knew that you’d released Hours… just for my birthday.
Thank you for October 3, 2000, the last day of my teens, when I listened to “Teenage Wildlife” over and over again, sobbing into a pillow (why do you always make me cry?), so scared of growing up, knowing that I was losing something forever.
Thank you for teaching me that putting a snare drum through a harmonizer makes any song better.
Thank you for showing me today that we can still all be united by the love of something beautiful.
Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.
In this age of grand illusion, you walked into our lives, out of our dreams. So this fantastic voyage indeed turned to erosion, and you never got old. I miss you, but you had to go — each to his own. After all, knowledge comes with death’s release. You never let me down — don’t you know you’re life itself?
David Bowie, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing. Thank you for giving everything away. I love you so fucking much.
Your biggest fan,
David Depper (Death Cab for Cutie)
I was coming back to California from France on January 9th, had bought and downloaded Blackstar right before I got on the plane, listened to it a bunch, passed out at home and woke up to all of this very sad news. Still seems like a dream. I was working on some music with a friend the day before I’d left and we talked about how excited we were to hear Blackstar after hearing the singles and how great it was to be alive and able to say, “Hey, the new Bowie’s coming out tomorrow.” Talked about how many millions of people had said that, had thought that, over the course of four-plus decades, and every time with the sincere question attached, “Well, what is it going to BE?” “What is it going to be LIKE?” “WHO is he now?” Listening to the record, reading the lyrics, it seems like maybe he had the same questions about living and leaving.
I feel insanely lucky that he took an interest and was so incredibly supportive of anything we were doing with TV on the Radio, and the fact that he was kind enough to record a song with us is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully process. In the very, very little time he spent with the band he was so humble it was eerie. He was incredibly funny, and chatting casually about bands like Lightning Bolt and Black Dice, and how into them he was, pushed me out of the deep shock of “I’m talking to him” and into the even deeper shock of “I love these bands completely, but why would YOU know or care about… oh right… you’re… David Bowie. You probably know and care a bit about everything… which maybe no one can, but maybe… you’re… no one? Who ARE you?” Then he sang on the song and we, as a band, shat our collective pants. And still, afterwards…Who WAS that? Which one was that? Who was that person who had, and had lived so many ideas that he’d actually become an idea himself?
Huge artist lessons from that idea: Change is the law. Get to it. Get lost. Try it out. Don’t get scared of your pain. Sit with it. Maybe it matters so much because it doesn’t. Don’t get stuck. Freak yourself out. Crack up. Stay interested. Make something. If you recognize it too well, mess up its face, bend it, make it something else. Make THAT something else. Stay on top of it. Drop it. Get magic. Build ways in, build ways out. Be disciplined. Make it count, be kind and stay true to yourself, whichever one you happen to be at the time.
The news, like this beautiful man, this art and artist, fills and empties and refills your heart and just keeps going. I don’t know that he ever was, or could be fixed in one place, but now I think he’s just everywhere, in a fine mist, every single one of him, all of them love.
— Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio)
In my parents’ record collection, the only Bowie album we had was Station to Station. It was an atypical introduction, perhaps, but for my eight-year-old self, “Golden Years” was a pop gem, quickly becoming one of those songs that I listened to at top volume with my dad’s huge headphones weighing down my head. As a teenager, I dubbed the vinyl version onto cassette tapes for many of my mixes, a breath of strange air when most mixtapes involved Toad the Wet Sprocket, etc. Something about the hiss and crackle of the vinyl and the dark quality of those “run for the shadows” vocals added up to a very bittersweet sensation of a past I’d never know. I wanted to go there, back to a time when I might have belonged, but I also heard Bowie’s own doubt in there about the gleam and promises of any present day. Better to run for the shadows and excel at outsiderhood.
—Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards)
David Bowie, for my tiny generation, was a civil rights movement unto himself. Celebration of difference could hardly be acted out more literally than that. What I can’t get out of my head is the song “The Laughing Gnome.” “Ha ha ha. Hee hee hee/I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me.” A manifesto!
— Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields)
My first immersion into the universe of David Bowie (because when you’re talking about David Bowie you’re not just talking about music but also about music videos and what they can mean and signify, you’re talking about film acting, about mime, about fashion, about technology and commerce, about the mystical/esoteric/visionary tradition in art – you’re talking about an entire universe of meaning this man created around him) destroyed everything I thought I knew about art and reformed it into something stronger and better. I thought art was about being earnest and authentic and “pure,” which were all conservative ideas leading me to a dead end; Bowie taught me that earnestness was boring and slightly embarrassing, that authenticity was a limiting concept cherished by the simple-minded, and that everything electric and gorgeous and thrilling stemmed from some kind of impurity. I had an invisible prison around my music and my brain and Bowie made that prison visible and gave me some rudimentary tools for dismantling it. Over time I’d add more and more tools to the collection, but the first gift basket came from Bowie.
I’m not alone in any of this, and I feel like I’m writing, right now, about the Bowie that everybody knows. But what I later realized is that there was a second Bowie underneath the most visible version of Bowie and that this Bowie was, in a way, deeply earnest, crying out in loneliness and longing, writing about his fear of being taken over by the mental illness that gripped his brother, about his fear of losing his soul to drugs, about his fear of death and his questions about what God might be. This other, secret Bowie was authentic as well — there was a melodic, lyrical, performative through-line that ran all the way from his folky-hippie-mime beginnings to his Blackstar coda, and as much as people harped on different ch-ch-chapters of his persona, he was always very obviously recognizably the same guy deep down, and that guy seemed like a beautiful soul, a passionate thinker in love with words and ideas and sounds, a compassionate person connected with his emotions and overflowing with generosity. (In a way, I suspect it’s that underlying authentic stability in Bowie that helped him regain his bearings, after a period of enervated stylistic wandering in the mid ’80s, and come back to make some of the best work of his career.)
And Bowie’s work was always pure, but it was pure in its impurity. You can even hear this quality on Blackstar, which finds him still melding every possible influence that’s thrilling him in the moment — slangy poetry and avant-garde theater and Kendrick Lamar and out jazz and Anthony Burgess and modern dance and electronic music — to make something that feels both monolithic and portable, a world tucked into your pocket, something that you can come back to, that you can rely on. It’s this final Bowie that I find most inspirational: not a glittering, transgressing alien but a human among us, a prolific artist utterly enthralled by the world and its mysteries and with the culture that human beings create. This is the Bowie who makes me want to move on, to make a million more records, to shower the people I meet with kindness, to make my time on earth as pretty as possible. This version of Bowie is the Bowie I’m going to remember the most, but it occurs to me that he might not even be a Bowie at all. His name might be Jones.
— Will Sheff (Okkervil River)
When it comes to combining the full experience of art and entertainment, Bowie has been our fearless leader since the late ’60s, bridging worlds and ideas we didn’t even think could overlap. When I was eight, watching MTV for hours every day, it fascinated me to no end that the sticky “Let’s Dance” dude was the same guy who sat by a piano playing “Life on Mars,” wearing only glitter. And that guy was the same who sang “Ashes to Ashes,” “Sound and Vision,” “Heroes” and so on. Both visually and musically, these were indescribable experiences, and many of these classic songs were among the first I learned and tried singing when I started performing at twelve. (“Space Oddity” and “Starman” almost played themselves, which came in handy.) Seeing as how I was born in ’82, I was in the privileged position that I could pick and choose my favorite David Bowie songs from that era and the early ‘80s, and at times, I’m sure, even take their indisputable brilliance for granted, although we all know Bowie ruled, defined and embodied the ‘70s.
So I’d like to make the case for the brilliance of two of his ’90s albums, Black Tie White Noise and Outside, which I got to experience in real time and that I still love to this day. By the time these came out — in ’93 and ’95, respectively — I had morphed into a pretentious teenager, and Bowie’s own quest for inspiration on the other side of his own legend spoke to me in ways I’ve maybe only fully appreciated later. As I grew into a kind of artist myself, I’ve thought a lot about how Bowie has always fully inhabited both the shameless entertainer and the tortured artist, teased and made fun of both of them, and nurtured and navigated their often disparate needs. As such, he’s been a mentor to me and countless others in our internal battles with ambition and art. He lived enough songs, characters and phases for at least ten individual legendary careers. Only one of them would’ve been enough to justify his place in the history books. But he was always more. An unusually generous artist, in the true meaning of the word.
Today I am perplexed by the mere thought that it was only on Friday that Bowie unleashed Blackstar, and while so many of us spent the weekend welcoming him into our lives again, David Bowie passed away Sunday night. Even David Bowie can’t beat death, but only David Bowie could orchestrate such a marvelous mindfuck of an exit. We’re left gasping — first at the beauty and brilliance of his final offering, Blackstar, and then, inevitably, because David Bowie is dead. It sounds so bizarre: David Bowie is dead. Although Bowie clearly didn’t want us to experience Blackstar in light of his illness and inevitable passing, I’m already anticipating how a song like “I Can’t Give Everything Away” will be even more devastating now that I know what I know, and David Bowie is gone. Of course, he never left us in the first place, and he never will again.
— Sondre Lerche
I feel completely silly to be so upset today by the death of someone I never actually met. But I guess the only way I can explain it is, when someone asked me this morning, “Since David Bowie was such an influence on you, where do you think you would be without him?” the answer was clearly obvious: “Absolutely nowhere.”
But I want to take this chance to talk about the end of David Bowie’s life. For eighteen months, he kept his sickness a secret in a time when that is no easy feat. He went in to the Magic Shop in Soho and produced what is categorically, to my ear, not only one of his greatest records, but an extremely challenging and rich work of art. He put said record out on Friday and disappeared on Sunday. He left us no appearances, only these extremely provocative images. No press statements, just music that stares into the void bravely and brings us back a story of beauty.
For forty years, David Bowie has released records with his face on the cover. This week, he released one without him and only a basic black star decal.
Consciously or not, David Bowie made his life about art all the way up to the end. The way he left this planet is exactly the way David Bowie should have. An absolute, beautiful, full-time art organism.
I love you, David Bowie.
— John Congleton (producer)
Hunky Dory, for me, was one of those seismic shift records that changed the way my putty-like adolescent brain thought about music. It seems trite to point to such a popular song in the wake of such a long and vibrant career, but “Life on Mars,” more than any other song, convinced me that David Bowie couldn’t possibly be an actual human being, because no human being could write something so beautiful, huge and achingly omniscient about the scope of our species. It really felt like he was looking down on the entirety of human civilization and having a pitying laugh — but a laugh filled with pain, love, horror and the whole spectrum of the human experience. I love all different aspects of Bowie’s career, but no single song sums it all up for me like “Life on Mars.” I guess it takes a Martian to adequately express how silly this whole human enterprise is. RIP, but something tells me Bowie will be digging the next dimension. He seemed to have one foot in it already.
— Tommy Siegel (Jukebox the Ghost, Drunken Sufis, Narc Twain)
Alienation is largely associated with the throes of change from child to adulthood, the first tastes of rebellion and the first recognition of time irrevocable. But alienation is a lifelong condition, a strange disease affecting all of us, who bravely turn to face it or cower in its glory. The choice those of us make to live in it and ultimately, to love it, is made easier by those who came before us, and serve as our beacons of strength. David Bowie has been that for me and countless others for many years. His unique offerings were infused with humor and passion and possibility, and reminded us all to just be ourselves, whether in pleasure or pain. Death’s mystery is the only thing that compares to the mystery of life, and now he’s turned to face it. We were lucky to have him, making records up to the last minute. “Thank you” will never be enough.
— Cameron Mesirow (Glasser)
Bowie represented the possibility of being “other” to so many of us. He was an adventurous alien-eyed creature, gender-ambiguous, idiosyncratic and continually exploring music while also connecting to the masses. Few others have navigated a life of such deep artistic integrity within such fame.
— Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)
David Bowie was one of the most unique humans and artists to have walked this earth. His ability to carry both insanity and grace in himself and his music is the most admirable thing to me.
One of my earliest memories is watching him in Labyrinth and being so fascinated by him and his persona. His career is an entire world in and of itself that exists only because he existed, in the way that only true and honest artists can do. The world will truly miss him and I will always remember him with complete respect and enchantment.
— Tei Shi
I went through my Bowie phase late. I’m still in its last stages, and I guess I’m stuck here now for the rest of my life. We were actually planning to perform all of Lodger on our upcoming tour this time — partly for fun, and partly out of pure gratitude: that album helped me feel sane after a few months of scary traveling, and the work of charting it out and picking it apart in order to play it has been really funny and interesting. This morning, that gesture’s taking on a new meaning.
More than anything, it’s the core of sincerity and urgency at the heart of nearly everything DB did that makes you look and listen again, and again… and for me, the suspicion that he suffered from a painful addiction to work, to pushing himself as hard as he could. The opening lyric of “Teenage Wildlife” haunts me, because it seems so vulnerable and self-addressed: “How come you always want tomorrow/with its promise of something hard to do?”
— Jonathan Meiburg (Shearwater)
I was the perfect age for a David Bowie fan, meaning that I when I got to Ziggy Stardust it was only two years old, and I was gazelle-ing to “Suffragette City” at high school dances, and, later, doing coke to the line “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love” when Station to Station was brand new. I heard Low and “Heroes” the day they were released. No coming back from Low and “Heroes.” Life-changers! But for all the plastic soul/Thin White Duke/”Let’s Dance” chilly, middle-period David Bowie, the revelation I remember above all other revelations was parsing the lyrics to “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing,” both studio and live versions, with my high school girlfriend as we were about to graduate out into the uncertain and grim late ‘70s, schooled up by a master who knew things about longing and the heart that he was discreetly burying in his incredibly fertile experiments: “I guess we could cruise down one more time/With you by my side, it should be fine/We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands.” The David Bowie who put his own wedding music on an album, who wrote a song about his stepbrother’s suicide, who wrote a song about his time in Berlin almost forty years later, the David Bowie who wrote an entire album, a jazz album, about his mortality, for his fans, with which now we can mourn. Not chilly at all, except when he was trying to direct attention away, not chilly at all, but rather one of the greatest anatomists of the human in song.
— Rick Moody (the Wingdale Community Singers)
Bowie did it already. He always did it already. He was man at his most self-actualized: Bowie the curious intellectual, Bowie the aesthete, Bowie the starry-eyed admirer, Bowie the thief, Bowie the radical epicene, Bowie the cocaine nihilist, Bowie the prodigious bulge, Bowie the elder statesman. I firmly believe that — minus a few fits and starts — rock and roll’s meteoric ascendency both peaked and collapsed with Bowie’s golden period, and that for the thirty-or-so years since, everything’s been made in either imitation or protest. There was just nothing left for anyone to do that he hadn’t already done. Even when Bowie didn’t do it first, he did it first.
I can’t bring myself to grieve; mortals shouldn’t mourn deities. May every eulogy read, simply: “Nailed It.”
— Zac Pennington (Parenthetical Girls)
I love David Bowie’s music deeply, and yet when I learned of his death last night I instantly flashed on a terrible, guilty memory whose repetition at present risks speaking ill of the dead: Sometime around the Earthling album in the late ’90s, I sat with a friend and my boyfriend and we started to take cheap, idiotic pot-shots at that album, which we regarded as a catalogue of typical uninspired aging rock star moves, a case in point of a vampire trying to draw sustenance from a then-thriving subculture (drum and bass). One or the other of us, I forget which, started to say, “David Bowie needs help, he should pay someone to tell him what to do” or something overconfident and obnoxious like that. Our friend grew livid, her voice and eyes tightening, near tears.
“How DARE you talk about David Bowie like that? After what he’s given us? The lengths he went to for his art, he nearly died…”
Did she mean the intensely coke-fueled era of the Berlin period and Station to Station? We weren’t sure.
“He has given his life to make art for you, and this is how you talk about him?”
Her intense advocacy for Bowie startled us, and snapped us out of our bitchy, judgmental posture, and over the next few days we kept returning to what her protection of Bowie meant. Our friendship continues, but I think in some odd way she has never quite forgiven us for these remarks.
What I think she did not realize is that that day we were also speaking as fans, and fandom can give you the false feeling of ownership over someone. By loving them you make them yours (Velvet Goldmine as Velveteen Rabbit?), and David Bowie was someone who had inspired us so deeply that we felt entitled to feel betrayed if and when, over the course of his lifetime, he made an album that didn’t speak to us with the power of the work that had soundtracked our adolescence, and had opened doors for us both as queer kids. To make an obvious point, the transformation of David Robert Jones into David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke offered a crash course in “queerness” to the world: his continual re-inventions and transformations were a “crash course for the ravers,” a portable lesson in queer survival that seemed to whisper I have changed myself and so can you. The words of “Rock and Roll Suicide” were/are a lifeline for many in the grip of despair and depression, a refutation of sad passions on behalf of union with others: “Let’s turn on and be not alone.” These phase-shifts and handholds in the darkness meant that the self is not what you already are but what you make on your own terms, and you keep changing as you live, and become self-differential in and over time. Neither fully male nor fully female, neither fully human nor fully alien, neither legibly gay nor quite just straight, flowing like mercury across genres and stages, Bowie’s queerness was both freeing and challenging, and it rippled outwards into all sorts of corners that might not seem hospitable to its flagrant oddity.
I live in one of those corners. My own band owes Bowie in a quite direct manner: our first album’s song “Lunaire” consists entirely of a manipulation of the beat that starts Bowie’s song “Soul Love” from the Ziggy Stardust album, an act of theft and audio-frottage that grasps onto a passing moment in Bowie’s catalogue and holds it in place. In our naiveté, we never cleared the sample or identified it, because this beat just felt like a part of a culture held in common: David Bowie was a given, a part of the landscape, inescapably present (and after all, “In a season of crime/none need atone”). Later, at the request of our friend Rex Ray, the graphic designer and artist and Bowie superfan who had the honor of creating the album cover for David Bowie’s Reality album, we covered “A New Career in a New Town” for the album After Low, a collection of artists covering the entirety of the Low album, which accompanied Fascination, an anthology of writings about David Bowie by mostly Bay Area and mostly queer poets and writers. Like everyone else, we felt that Bowie was somehow “ours” — ours to love fiercely and to sometimes just as fiercely dislike as a reflex of love’s shadow, the dream of proprietary ownership. As it turns out, David Bowie had the last laugh, releasing the astonishing valediction of Blackstar at the age of 69 days before his death, a “solitary candle/at the center of it all” in defiance of boom-and-bust cycles of attachment and collapse, modeling what it really means to be an artist for life.
Listening to the absolute presence of your voice in my ears singing “I can’t give everything away” as I write these words, I can’t quite believe that this is goodbye, however tightly we hold fast to the recordings. In a phrase that shines from the void with a new lustre, the last words are rightly yours: “The stars look very different today.”
— Drew Daniel (Matmos)