Thanks, Starman: Why David Bowie Was the Greatest Rock Star Ever

A tribute to the late master of rock & roll reinvention

Rob Sheffield pays tribute to mercurial rock icon David Bowie. Credit: Zuma

Planet Earth is a lot bluer today without David Bowie, the greatest rock star who ever fell to this or any other world. He was the hottest tramp, the slinkiest vagabond, the prettiest star who ever shouted "You're not alone!" to an arena full of the world's loneliest kids. He was the most human and most alien of rock artists, turning to face the strange, speaking to the freak in everyone. He stared into your twitchy teenage eyes to assure you that you've torn your dress and your face is a mess, yet that's precisely why you're a juvenile success. Whichever Bowie you loved best — the glam starman, the wispy balladeer, the Berlin archduke — he made you feel braver and freer, which is why the world felt different after you heard Bowie. This man's spaceship always knew which way to go.

That's why he always inspired such fierce devotion. As a teenager in the Eighties, at home glued to my radio on Saturday because I couldn't get a ticket to the Bowie show in Boston, I listened as a group of WBCN DJs arrived at the studio fresh from the show, with a cigarette butt they'd swiped from an ashtray backstage. And I listened with goosebumps as they ceremonially smoked it on the air. Bowie fanatics are like that. Which is why so many different people have heard themselves in his music, whether it's Barbra Streisand covering "Life On Mars?" in 1974 or D'Angelo covering "Space Oddity" in 2012, George Clinton namechecking him on Mothership Connection or Public Enemy sampling him in "Night of the Living Baseheads." Somehow I really thought he'd outlive us all. After all, he'd outlived so many David Bowies before.

The weekend he died, I was listening to nothing but Bowie. On Friday night, his birthday, I went to see the tribute band Holy Holy play The Man Who Sold the World in New York, with producer Tony Visconti on bass, original Spiders drummer Woody Woodmansey and Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory. After finishing the album, they did another solid hour of early Seventies Bowie classics from "Five Years" to "Watch That Man." Visconti had the crowd sing "Happy Birthday" into his phone and texted it to Bowie. "David's at his birthday party," he told us. "This isn't it." (Were we all secretly hoping maybe the Dame would show up? Of course we were.) I got weepy when Visconti's daughter sang "Lady Stardust," a song that has always made me verklempt because it's reminded me Bowie was going to die someday, though Friday night, that still seemed far away. I spent the rest of the weekend listening to Station to Station and Low — an ordinary weekend, since those are easily the two most-played albums in my apartment — along with the 1974 outtake "Candidate (Demo)," and of course the new Blackstar, an album which sounded very different 24 hours ago.

As Visconti said last night when the news broke, Blackstar was a "parting gift." In his last couple of years on the planet, Bowie threw himself back into the music career everyone figured he'd long since retired from gracefully, making The Next Day and Blackstar as his farewells to the flock he'd assembled over the years. Heading for the final curtain, Bowie chose to face it the way he faced everything else — it was cold and it rained, so he felt like an actor and went to work, going out at a creative peak. No other rock artist left a final testament anything like this. Nor like the excellent off-Broadway musical he debuted last year, Lazarus, which I was lucky enough to see in December — definitely the only time I've ever seen actors sing "Heroes" while swimming like dolphins through a puddle of milk.

For all his spaciness, it was his crackpot compassion that made him Bowie. You can see that even in a movie like The Man Who Fell to Earth, which barely has a single coherent scene. The movie is a mess, just because Bowie is too hot to share the screen with anyone — you can see all the other actors watching him, wondering, "Is David looking at me? Does he think I'm pretty? Does he respect my creative process?" Bowie's at his most zonked out, yet he still seems like the least confused figure there. But he looks so cool (orange hair! Borsalino hat! Trench coat and tennis whites and silver pants!) that I've seen this movie several dozen times anyway. As the Martian lodger stranded on earth, Bowie records an album for his wife back on his home planet, The Visitor, hoping it will get get played on the radio and his wife out there in space will hear it.

That music — we never hear it in the movie — might have been the hazy cosmic jive Bowie hears on the radio in "Starman," the hit that made him a true star in the U.K. after years of false starts. He performed it on Top of the Pops, taped on July 5, 1972 and broadcast the next day, a scene witnessed by every future musician in the British Isles — everything halfway interesting in British rock goes back to that four minutes of glam, yet watching it today is still startling. The best portrait of Bowie in the 1970s remains the BBC documentary Cracked Actor, where he twitches, sniffles, sings along with Aretha Franklin in the back of his limo, and does his onstage Hamlet-in-shades routine, holding a skull in his hand and jamming his tongue down its throat. Suck, baby, suck.

He hit Number One in the U.S. with the disco John Lennon collabo "Fame," which got instantly plundered by James Brown for "Hot" — making Bowie the rare rock star who could truthfully claim James Brown ripped him off. (Shortly before he died, the Godfather said that if he ever had a tribute album, Bowie would be his choice to do "Soul Power" — one of the weirdest things JB ever said.) His "plastic soul" period culminated at the 1975 Grammy Awards, where Bowie, looking dashing but scarily drug-ravaged in his tux, greeted the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen — and others." He gave the Best R&B Performance trophy to Aretha Franklin, who gushed, "Wow, this is so good, I could kiss David Bowie! I mean that in a beautiful way, because we dig it!" 

Bowie and L.A. had a toxic fling — as he recalled, "I blew my nose one day and half my brains came out." But he was just beginning his most golden years, assembling the best band he ever had, probably the all-time greatest unnamed rock band: the core rhythm section of drummer Dennis Davis, bassist George Murray and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Armed with this crew, and other key collaborators like Tony Visconti and Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, Bowie made his five best albums in a five-year blaze from 1976 to 1980, the best five-album run of anyone in the Seventies (or since): Station to Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters. In this timespan, he also made the two albums that brought back Iggy Pop from the dead — The Idiot, prized by Bowie freaks as a rare showcase for his eccentric lead guitar, and Lust for Life — and his finest live album, Stage, from the 1978 tour, absurdly turning the ambient instrumentals from Low and Heroes into arena rock. As he put it at the time, "I'm using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants — they're Pierrot, the eternal clown putting across the great sadness of 1976." 

He returned in the Eighties with Let's Dance, moving in on the New Romantic pop he'd created in his own image, with genuinely great moments like "Criminal World" (covering the German Bowie clones Metro) and "Modern Love" (wailing that "church on time" call and response like his life depends on it). After a decade or so in the wilderness, he began writing strong songs again in the mid-Nineties, with Earthling and Hours, exploring what became the grand theme of his final phase — true love, the kind he'd found with Iman. "Looking for Satellites" on Earthling, "Seven" and "Thursday's Child" on Hours — sincere and soulful tunes, yet overlooked because it was hard to find them under all the cheezoid production glop. (Too bad he never got a chance to redo these songs with his more simpatico recent band.) But in the final 20 years of his life, he never made a weak album. Heathen, Reality, The Next Day and Blackstar were up to his own highest standards.

But everything that made Bowie my hero — it's all there in "Young Americans," from 1974, a song of almost bottomless compassion. He belts it in his tortured Elvis voice, over grand glam-funk, a pushing-thirty limey rock star full of yearning and affection (and lust, lots of that) for the young Americans he sees around him. He wishes he could be as real and open-hearted as they are, but those kids are the song that makes him break down and cry. Especially the two lovers on the road, all the way from Washington, who pose a question anyone can relate to: "We've lived for just these 20 years — do we have to die for the 50 more?" Bowie's answer was no, and he proved it — he kept expanding and mutating right up to the edge of 70, celebrating his 69th birthday with an album that lived up to all the restless spirit he'd chased his whole career. He assured his fans we didn't have to give up on life, didn't have to play it safe, didn't have to fall into a rut — and he proved it was possible in his own music. (If he says he can do it, he can do it — he don't make false claims.) When I saw him live for the last time, at Madison Square Garden in 2003, he did three songs from Outside, a forgotten (and frankly awful) 1995 album he was fully aware nobody liked. Yet he was just obeying his code: a whole career without a predictable moment. What a trip to be a fan of his. Thanks, David Bowie.