It was a great show. I remember watching a half dozen acts, including Jimmy Fallon, Wyclef Jean and the Counting Crows, as well as Bowie. But Bowie was the standout. His band -- not crappy, at all -- were the best musicians on the stage all evening. He played only a handful of songs, including some from a new album. The new songs floored me. Passionate, tinged with a mature sense of fear and alienation wound around a soulful grief that just seemed to speak for the general mood in Lower Manhattan in those days, seemed to speak for everyone in the crowd. He also played an older song, "I'm Afraid of Americans," a brave performance that seemed to question the role America's cultural identity played in making us a terrorist target. After that concert, I bought the 2002 album, Heathen, and found it filled with that same spirit -- an unvarnished determination, an embrace of America's wounds, flaws and joys, not shying away from questions, or from the sense of loss, but with a prevailing sense of endurance and even wonder. In those months, improbably, David Bowie became my church.
8. Rising from the ashes. Bowie's career was briefly derailed by a drug addiction in the mid-70s after the huge successes of Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans and Station to Station (with its hit single, "Golden Years"). In self-imposed exile in Berlin, he came back with a series of albums, beginning with Low that set the standard for electronic pop for the following 10 years. Later he would write about that end-of-childhood period of addiction ("strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low") in the song, "Ashes to Ashes." 7. Turning failure into success. After the wild success of Let's Dance in the 1980s, Bowie's career again seemed to spiral off into irrelevancy. Fighting back, he released "Sound + Vision," a 20-year career retrospective, and promised to retire "Ziggy" and his other personas from live performances. Packaging and closing the door on all his past success with one tour worked like a charm, reinvigorating sales of his old albums and current concert tickets as well as the Sound + Vision collection. 6. Riding the waves. Over the next decade, Bowie's popularity bounced crazily as he pushed himself into new areas, some successful, some not. Critical and popular acclaim often seemed to diverge. Yet, each album continued to point in new directions, as if he were committed to success only through adventure. Along the way, he set up a permanent position ahead of the curve in the music business, whether it be with videos, fashion, advocating a new medium or selling bonds based on his music catalog. He embraced the future with a natural and easy grace. 5. Heathen is a masterpiece. Released in 2002, a direct artistic response to 9/11, it surprised everybody, even ardent fans. In my estimation, it is easily one of the best pop albums ever made. 4. This performer helped change our definitions of sexuality. A lot of controversy ensued when Bowie came out as gay in 1972 prior to Ziggy Stardust. His spangled jumpsuits, makeup and dyed hair helped define what became known as "glam" rock, but it was a style merely of exaggeration, built on a long tradition of androgyny in rock dating back at least to Little Richard. Bowie's boldness is remarkable; it was only three years after Stonewall, when being openly gay was still quite shocking. He has since swung the door even wider, helping represent the entire, vast spectrum of human sexuality by being comfortable in his complex skin and retaining an appeal that consistently crosses all gender lines. 3. He's still damned good looking. 2. He's currently married to Iman. The onetime supermodel turned successful businesswoman is his wife of 20 years and mother of his child. She is also one of the few people in the world quantifiably even better looking that he is. (Does that mean he's not gay? Glad you asked! Answer: Sexuality is not an on/off switch.)
1. Are we noticing a trend here? Bowie is often touted as a master of self-invention and re-invention, but the truth is both more subtle and more complex. Beneath all the masks he has donned over the years, he has remained a true voice -- always moving forward with a consistent artistic integrity, a sincerity that is palpable in his music, no matter the subject. Other acts from the 1960s and 1970s are still kicking but have long since devolved into pleasant self-parodies. I love the Rolling Stones, but I would put them in this category. Ditto Bruce Springsteen: his recordings have become all-too comfortable, like a warm pair of slippers, ceasing to have the explosive, hard-edged creativity they once did. By contrast, every Bowie album sounds like his life depends on it, like he's starting all over. Even now, an album like The Next Day that is supposed to be a satisfying look back at the arc of his career, is actually a look forward at what younger artists will likely be doing five years from now. He sets the trend. Were we all to approach life and our life's work with this level of commitment, this level of passion, ingenuity and enthusiasm, we could work miracles. -- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park