by Erik Ritland
As I typed the title to this I shook my head. I’m in disbelief. A tribute to David Bowie? What? No. This doesn’t make any sense.
Even after typing that, and seeing all the tributes, and exchanging stories with all my other friends that David Bowie meant so much to, I still don’t believe it.
How can it be true?
I don’t mean to be dramatic. I'm also not the type to mourn for people I didn’t know face-to-face.
But Bowie is different. His creativity, and what he created, is at the foundation of so many emotional places in my life, is even at the foundation of why I create anything at all, be it music, writing, or whatever else. I’ve bonded in significant ways with so many of my friends over him and his music. I find it hard to think of any other musician that means as much to those I know as David Bowie.
Bowie was an innovator, a truly creative mind that never stopped moving forward. He means so much to so many people because his music exploded boundaries. His singular songwriting was accessible and always well-crafted, even at his most experimental.
Partially for therapy, and partially to explain why his music means so much to me, I feel the need to say a few words about it.
He began as a rhythm and blues artist, and even his first single “Liza Jane” has a passion that foreshadowed all the changes he went through in his career (pardon the pun). I spent far too many hours as a kid poring over his earliest material, and I still think that his self-titled debut album is vastly underrated. It is fun, unpredictable baroque ‘60s pop. For a primer, check out “The London Boys” and “Karma Man,” two of my favorite Bowie songs.
After these initial experiments he exploded, both artistically and in popularity. He followed the Dylan influenced Space Oddity with his first truly original album, the beautifully murky proto-metal of The Man Who Sold the World. The erratic, breathtaking guitar work of Mick Ronson, along with swirling layers of synths, were ahead of its time, surpassing even Sabbath and Zeppelin in power and immediacy. Album opening suite “The Width of a Circle” is one of Bowie's darkest, most creative, most sexually charged songs. “All the Madmen” follows, a powerful psychological exploration of insanity with a fittingly intense backing of heavy guitars and otherworldly synths. Although Nirvana’s unplugged take is definitive – something Bowie even admitted – his original version of the title track is one of his most out there songs, the lyrics coming alive on top of layers of keyboards, percussion, and multi-tracked vocals.
As he often did, Bowie followed up the heavy Man Who Sold The World with something completely different. Hunky Dory is one of the best songwriting albums of all-time, so you’re missing out if the only song you know from it is “Changes.” “Quicksand” is probably the only profoundly philosophical (and even borderline Satanic) song with a singalong chorus. Melodic Beatle-esque “Life on Mars” is as important to the Bowie persona as “Space Oddity.” The weird folk of “The Bewlay Brothers,” like “All the Madmen” before it, is an emotional ode to his schizophrenic half-brother Terry.
Although this era was only Bowie’s initial breaking out, it is what impacted me the most. I love many of his other albums – the bleak, foreboding rock of Diamond Dogs, complex soul rock masterpiece Station to Station, powerful guitar driven Scary Monsters, unheralded ‘90s release …hours (only because it came out at the height of my Bowie obsession), and his last several albums. But in a significant way nothing impacts a person more than the music they discovered when they were in their early teens, when life is crazy and everything carries extra meaning. This is when I discovered Bowie, and his music never lost that initial magic.
As hard as it is for me to internalize it, I know that David Bowie is dead. But in significant ways he’ll never die. As cliché as it is, his music, his soul, and his spirit will live on forever. Although true, it seems like such a small condolence for not having him in the world anymore. It is up to those who loved him to carry his spirit and legacy forward, not only by appreciating and loving what he created, but also by creating meaningful music and art in the same innovative spirit. I am thankful and grateful for the place he has in my life.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.