by Mitchell Brown, Reporter
I rolled out of bed on January 11, maybe with more pep in my step than usual as it was the start of what is to be my last semester at the University of Central Missouri. I looked down at my phone, clicked on Facebook to check trending topics, and I saw three words that hit with the impact of a sonic boom… “David Bowie dead.” I knew the words, understood their meaning, but I was shocked seeing them. I felt as though I had been briefly teleported to another dimension, an alternate universe, one without David Bowie. But this wasn’t a dream. I knew he was an elder statesman of rock. I didn’t know his exact age, but I do know about linear existence, the reality that all of us no matter how rich, famous or talented, have a date with the Grim Reaper. David Bowie was more than just another old, now dead, rock star – the man was a musical entity unto himself and a pop-culture anomaly whose music altered the pop-culture landscape.
The self-contained musician is a rarity. There are those who follow along a pace set by someone else, and there are those who set the pace. The latter was as true for Jimi Hendrix as it is for Morrissey, and David Bowie was the personification of a self-contained pace-setter. In the wake of his passing, the heartfelt eulogizing came quick from an eclectic cornucopia of musicians. Madonna, members of Duran Duran, Michael Stipe, and Billy Idol all delivered poignant words on the influence of Bowie. Sonically, these musicians bear little to no resemblance to each other, but Bowie’s influence runs through them.
Bowie’s music is truly timeless. The disco music of the ’70s and hair metal of the ’80s are forever tied to those decades and stand as the epitome of dated. The music of Kraftwerk, though recorded in the ’70s and ’80s, sounds like a transmission from a distant, yet to arrive, future day. David Bowie was not exclusively tied to one era, as he sonically shape-shifted through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s into the 2000s and beyond. A great many rock stars of the ’70s are essentially frozen in that era, relegated to touring state fairs and casinos (instead of arenas) and being nostalgia acts for their original fan base. David Bowie and Neil Young were the exceptions. They weren’t/aren’t cast aside as “dinosaur rock” They remained relevant and revered.
David Bowie’s shape shifting ways included embracing online technology to promote his music when the internet was still in its nascent stages and also collaborating with Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.
It was during the alternative rock boom of the ’90s that I first heard Bowie. The song was “Space Oddity.”
The song itself marked a crucial turning point for me, a realization that the music I listened to had origins extending to another time. Musical movements are almost never insular – they are more often than not touched and influenced by something that came before. There are lines of connection between the glam rock of the early to mid ’70s and the punk rock explosion of 1977. There are lines of connection between the growth of hardcore punk and indie throughout the ’80s on labels such as SST and Dischord and the major label breakthrough of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991. As I grew to see lines of demarcation and connection between eras and genres and sub-genres, I came to understand how widespread the influence of David Bowie was.
The influence was on display when Duran Duran gallivanted about in immaculate suits in the video for “Rio.” It was there when Nirvana covered “The Man Who Sold the World” during the 1993 appearance on “MTV Unplugged.” David Bowie was a living, breathing musical institution, and the thing about growing up in the shadow of living institutions is that you’ve always known a world in which they were there. They become the equivalent of neon lights in Vegas or oxygen. It’s hard to imagine a world without them, but man is not a stone pillar. Man is mortal, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but when man is elevated to an institution himself or exalted to the status of “rock god,” we tend to think of him as otherworldly, yet he is still a man, mortal, of flesh and blood.
I’ve found that as one witnesses more of these treasured, long-standing institutions fall, the world can start to look and feel more unfamiliar.
Take this in… We’ve inherited a world in which David Bowie, Michael Jackson, the founding members of the Ramones, and Motorhead’s Lemmy are all dead. The greatest tragedy in all of this might be as these greats have fallen by the wayside, fewer greats within the contemporary pop-culture landscape stand as suitable heirs. It’s like flames of a torch slowly being put out and buried with the dead rock stars, instead of being passed down.
My period of mourning over David Bowie was brief, about a week. I mean, I didn’t know him personally, and he was already immortalized through his music, but his passing did cause me to think about mortality and earthly linear existence, which is one part the Sword of Damocles and one part X and Y in an algebraic expression. It’s a straight line with point A being the cradle and point B being the grave, and even living institutions are not exempt from such a law, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.