When allowed the opportunity to take on David Bowie’s first RS 500 appearance with his 1976 album, Station to Station, I had so many things I wanted to tell you.
I was going to tell you I had been playing his latest album, Blackstar, on a feverish loop in the days prior to his death—the album was released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, January 8, 2016; Bowie died two days later due to cancer. I was going to tell you that more friends called, texted, messaged, and wrote to me when he passed than when both of my maternal grandparents passed away in 2015.
I was going to tell you that a friend called me at 1:01 a.m., as soon as news of Bowie’s death broke, to tell me so I wouldn’t be “blindsided” by it in the morning; that after word of his death I typed “David” into my Spotify app and was beyond outraged when fucking David Guetta showed up first—so much so that I screen-captured it as some sort of relic. And that after the 1:01 a.m. call, I melodramatically played “Girl Loves Me” on a loop as I sobbed thinking about a Bowieless world.
I was going to tell you that on the evening of his death, January 10, I unwittingly packed away a copy of Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection, Life on Mars, to return it to a friend after I’d held onto the book for well over a year.
I was going to tell you anything I could to constellate my life around his. To form any kind of semblance of meaning.
But after stewing over this piece for four months and nearly 20 pages of single-spaced prose and umpteenth drafts later, I’m realizing that that’s what it’s always been about with David Bowie: redrafting, regeneration, reincarnation, persona. What an original idea—I know.
Call it the obvious: chameleonic. Call it music industry Darwinism. Call it a penchant for “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” and resurrection. Whatever you call it, one thing remains simple: David Bowie managed to stay relevant for nearly 50 years in an industry with a typical shelf-life shorter than that of a loaf of bread.
Station to Station is a testament to this as well as something darker about Bowie’s seemingly exponential rate of evolution over the years: a continued fascination with persona, à la the Thin White Duke, as a way of manifesting, controlling, and coping with his family’s history of schizophrenia. Not to mention his own drug-induced bouts with psychosis during the making of StS, due to heavy cocaine use.
Bowie spoke openly about his family’s history of “mental instability” (0:54) and his earliest role model, a half-brother, Terry, and Terry’s psychotic episodes (1:44) that simultaneously terrified and intrigued Bowie. Terry was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized before he committed suicide in 1985, for which Bowie later wrote the song “Jump They Say” (1993).
Terry’s fingerprints are all over Bowie’s career, especially 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World. The album not only includes sleeve art depicting the Cane Hill psychiatric hospital Terry was admitted to, but it also features the song “All the Madmen,” a track situated in the perspective of an institutionalized speaker. And later, 1973’s Aladdin Sane—a moniker and pun for “A lad insane.” Just to name a few.
However, this element of Bowie’s creative landscape and rhetoric is often overlooked and overshadowed by his groundbreaking thrust of sexuality- and gender-privy personas into the mainstream. But mainstreaming mental illness needs to be added to the long list of reasons why his works transcend the empty and nondescript pop bullshit that’s been an unfortunate staple of the mainstream palate since the beginning of time.
I urge you, if you have not already: go listen to StS and you’ll hear it too. The way Bowie’s, or rather the Thin White Duke’s, cocaine soul hijacks songs mid-verse, like the 10-minute opening title track. In it, a plodding train platform feel emerges as the heavy-ass bass line lolls and dips in and out of the song like a tired dog’s tongue, only to be destroyed almost exactly mid-track and replaced by a piano- and guitar-driven blue-eyed soul landscape, while our trusty guide, the Thin White Duke, assures us, “It's not the side-effects of the cocaine.” But it definitely is.
Cocaine residue is all over the Thin White Duke when he slips into the next track, “Golden Years,” as some kind of jaded urchin of the discotheque scene. And that’s exactly how he appeared when he lip-synched the song on Soul Train in 1975.
The rest of album is equally unsettled as it mutates from blue-eyed soul to a swooping hymn of balladry to the incoherent psychosis of "TVC15," inspired by a bad trip in which his pal, Iggy Pop, allegedly thought his girlfriend was being eaten by Bowie’s TV set. Long story short, in a matter of six tracks, the merciless Thin White Duke has the listener riding his coattails from the desolate train station, past his dealer’s place, through the trip, and then knocks you flat on your ass and deserts you for the comedown as he boards and flies off on a spaceship you can’t tell is real or not. This was Bowie’s ruthless shtick and he was damn good at it.
Case in point: July 3, 1973, Bowie’s first orchestrated “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” at London's Hammersmith Odeon. His casualty: the Ziggy Stardust persona.
Burned out by his Starman persona’s “meteoric rise,” he decided to kill Ziggy off while the cameras of D.A. Pennebaker filmed the show. Before launching into the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” finale, Bowie announced the concert as the band’s last. Ever. The crowd went ballistic. But what most YouTubers manage to cut out of the performance is the most important part: the house music Bowie selected to play after the band left the stage for good.
As the crowd swells into hysterics, Pomp & Circumstance, March No. 1 begins to play. Better known as “The Graduation March” played at nearly every high school and college graduation, the song is audible in the last minute of Pennebaker’s recording (4:17-5:17). Bowie, down to the finest of details, executed a simultaneous suicide-graduation for Ziggy Stardust. And he continued to do so with future personas, flavors, and styles present in his creative works—in what some label as a chameleon-like characteristic. But I’d like to think it’s much darker and more complex than that easy and redundant label Bowie’s been plastered with since his untimely passing.
The creation of each new persona seemed to be a manifestation of fear about his mental state and lurking family history of mental health issues. With each killing, Bowie was flexing his agency. He was the one in charge. He was the one saying “when.” He was not a chameleon—there was no reason for him to hide or blend in. He was exactly the opposite. He was an exhibitionist and advocate of opening up conversations about sexuality, gender, mental health, and so many other topics through art.
Bowie is anything but chameleon.
Bowie is denial. Bowie is coping. Bowie is survival. Bowie is exhibition. Bowie is agency. And he maintained his precious agency, and therefore his sanity, until the end, leaving us with Blackstar, his final persona: “I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”…while still calling the shots:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now