I hadn’t gotten around to downloading David Bowie’s last album, “Blackstar,” released just last week on his 69th birthday, when word came Monday that he died following an undisclosed fight with cancer.
It was a final, classic Bowie move — releasing an album without fanfare and letting the art stand on its own. No maudlin pandering for validation or rave reviews. But the raves came anyway, before we knew about the cancer.
Make no mistake that without Bowie there’d be no Madonna or Lady Gaga or any number of acts that have cited him as a primary influence. Even Kanye West tweeted his appreciation. For gay fans, like me, Bowie was a beacon and a revelation. Though married for 24 years to the equally stylish Iman, Bowie flirted openly with gay and bisexual themes in the early 1970s, only a few years after the U.K. lifted its ban on homosexual acts. He once told an interviewer that he was gay, but in later years played down that claim. His biographers describe a hedonistic, cocaine-fueled sex life in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that reportedly included romps with men and women.
Recalling Bowie’s iconic 1972 appearance on Britain’s “Top of the Pops,” in which he performed “Starman” dressed in full Ziggy Stardust regalia, British GQ editor Dylan Jones told the BBC that was the moment his life changed.
“He was a dangerous figure on British TV at a point when television didn’t do danger,” Jones said. “Forty-one years ago, it was an extraordinary experience. It didn’t immediately fill me with gay longings — though with some people it did. But nothing was quite the same afterwards.”
Indeed, the worlds of pop music and fashion would never be the same after Bowie exploded into public consciousness after that TV appearance.
I was lucky to see Bowie perform live twice, first on the stunning “Sound + Vision” tour in July of 1990 and later at D.C.’s Capitol Ballroom on the 1997 “Earthling” tour. Whether surrounded by props and pyro and supporting players or standing alone at center stage in a simple T-shirt, Bowie was a showman and you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
His boldness in subverting gender norms and declining to identify publicly as heterosexual (despite his many dalliances with famous women) gave cover and hope to many closeted gay fans the world over. Bowie showed us it was OK to be weird and different and to not fit in with our conventional teenage contemporaries.
As Tilda Swinton so brilliantly put it in her tribute to Bowie featured in his recent exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, “the freak becomes the great unifier.”
His vast influence wasn’t limited to the world of music. Bowie was a prolific visual artist and acclaimed actor (“The Hunger,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth”). He always embraced technology, launching an internet service provider, Bowie.net, in the late ‘90s and giving a startlingly prescient interview in 2000 in which he said, “Rock and roll is now a career opportunity, and the internet carries the flag for the subversive and rebellious, chaotic and nihilistic…the monopolies do not have a monopoly [anymore]. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
Bowie’s music is an indelible part of the soundtrack of many lives. He was an oddity, a hero and, yes, a rebel.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.