I almost saw David Bowie live in Chicago in the mid-1990s, during probably the lowest decade of his amazing 50-year career. After maybe one song, Bowie said his throat was hurting, walked offstage, and that was it. Show over. It is a very small testament to his musical talents that even after that unapologetic slight to his fans, I never stopped counting myself among his ardent admirers.
Bowie died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday, after an 18-month battle with cancer. He had appeared to defy the physical ravages of aging, adding to the shock when his son and his publicist confirmed the news early Monday.
Bowie's 25th and final studio album, Blackstar, released Friday, was a collaboration with a jazz quintet. His first recording, the single "Liza Jane" (1964) — recorded under the name Davie Jones and the King Bees — was straight-up American R&B, and his debut single as David Bowie, "The Laughing Gnome" (1967), is an odd song that sounds like a circus dancehall version of "The Tennessee Waltz," with distinct hints of Bowie's future musical career. He finally scored his first hit with the song "Space Oddity" in 1969, and he never really looked back.
This is the key to understanding Bowie: His style changed dramatically over the years, but his music always sounded like David Bowie. His various personas — Ziggy Stardust (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Plastic Soul Man (1975), and the Thin White Duke (1976), for example — changed music and expanded the theatrical boundaries of rock and pop (New York has a "taxonomy of David Bowie's many personas and their many imitators" in its current issue). But his music will outlast his fashion choices.
"My entire career, I've only really worked with the same subject matter," Bowie told The Associated Press in 2002. "The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear, and anxiety — all of the high points of one's life."
This is by no means a comprehensive or objective survey of Bowie's music — the 1970s will get badly short-changed — but here are six songs from Bowie's career, one from each decade. We'll start with "Space Oddity," first released in 1969 (and later re-released as a single in 1973):
The 1970s was Bowie's most prolific and influential decade, highlighted by albums like Hunky Dory, The Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Low, and "Heroes." If you own any of Bowie's singles compilations, you're familiar with this decade. With such a wealth of materials, it's hard to choose just one song. Here's the opening track of Ziggy Stardust (1972), "Five Years":
The 1980s saw a chart-topping duet with Mick Jagger (a cover of "Dancing in the Streets"), the songs "Ashes to Ashes" and "Fashion," and his best-selling album, Let's Dance (1983), which featured guitar work from Stevie Ray Vaughn. From that album, here's "Modern Love."
In the 1990s, Bowie released a handful of albums, including the well-received Earthling (1997) and Black Tie White Noise (1992). He had a few hits, and this gospel cover of Morrissey's "I Know It's Going to Happen Someday" was not one of them. If you're never heard it, though, it's a remarkable high-wire act that shows off Bowie's vocal prowess while just managing to avoid camp:
In the 2000s, Bowie put out just two albums, Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003), then suffered a heart attack and stopped recording for a decade. Heathen was released after the Sept. 11 attacks in Bowie's adopted city, New York, and although the songs were written before the attack, its hard not to hear the echoing sadness in the recording. "Slip Away" is a standout on the album:
Bowie's last two studio albums are Blackstar and The Next Day (2013). For the final song, here's the second single from Blackstar, "Lazarus," which starts out with the line: "Look up here, I'm in heaven."
The biblical Lazarus, of course, was revived from the dead by Jesus. David Bowie will live on in his music. Cancer can't take that away from him, or from us.