It's been very difficult for me to put my feelings into words, and so many other people have been doing it and doing it better, so I don't have a lot to offer. Instead, I'd like to offer up a short playlist of five songs that have been comforting this week, and which will probably stay with me forever.
"Life on Mars?"
I put this one on last night, and my wife enthusiastically said "Yes! This is what I want to hear!" It is a haunting song from Bowie's early period ostensibly about a mousy young woman going to the movies by herself feeling lost but looking for the company of the images on screen. These movies end up being a "saddening bore," leading her to ask whether there is life on Mars, or at least some other world less dreadful than this one. The lyrics are not completely straight-forward, but that's the beauty of Bowie. I can picture this song perfectly in my mind every time I hear it, but it won't be how anyone else pictures it. I am now firmly convinced that I want it played at my funeral.
"Width Of A Circle"
Although it may be a cliche to say this, cliches are cliches for a reason. Bowie's shape-shifting ways made him the first post-modern rock star and had a huge influence on others. Before he figured out the Ziggy Stardust persona, he could rock out, glam style. As good as the Ziggy era was, none of his songs, including "Rebel Rebel," rock quite like "Width Of A Circle." This hard-rocking version of Bowie came after his being a mod in the mid-60s and slightly folkie in the late 60s, before letting his camp side out on Hunky Dory, which came right before Ziggy. He changed images so often that The Man Who Sold The World gets lost in the shuffle, mostly because his work from 1969-1980 is so fertile that is probably the greatest run of that length by any rock act.
This is one of those few songs that the first time I heard it I literally could not believe what I was hearing. I had never listened to anything quite like it before, and I must've listened to it ten times a day for a month afterward. Bowie's Berlin music is probably my favorite of his many phases, and this song takes the amazing, otherworldly sound he was creating with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, and applies it to one of the most stirring rock ballads of all time. I am going to just stop talking because this song really speaks for itself.
On Hunky Dory Bowie paid homage to many of his idols, from Andy Warhol to Bob Dylan. This song was meant for the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, and pushes ahead with a truly wonderful propulsion that makes it one of my favorite highway driving songs. Bowie was one of the first people to understand the revolution latent in the Velvets' sound and adapt it to something new, rather than just imitate it. That act may very well be one of the most important great leaps forward in rock music history, and one of the least known.
"Word On A Wing"
When I heard of Bowie's death, this was one of the first songs to pop into my head. It comes from Station to Station, the album he recorded in the mid-70s when he was at a low point of failing health and cocaine psychosis. It's a song about grace, with heavy religious overtones. In the midst of the worst, he sees a way out and a spiritual awakening. Yesterday I thought a lot about how Bowie's life could very well have ended forty years ago. We were so fortunate to have him for so long, and now his breath has gone out, no longer lies like a word on a wing. All that remains are the memories, and the music, and those I will carry with me.