When a truly iconic figure dies, any attempt to properly remember that person is doomed to failure. When the truly iconic figure is David Bowie, standard obituaries aren’t just trite; they become thin and glib and insignificant. There’s just no way for a writer to possibly trace Bowie’s influence. It can’t be done. Looking at the musical landscape today, it’s possible to see traces of Bowie all over the place. If you’re looking for it, you can find it in Kanye West, in Grimes, in Dawn Richard, in Tame Impala, in Janelle Monaé, in St. Vincent, in Sleater-Kinney, in Young Thug. And that’s even before you get into Bowie’s seismic influence on fashion, on art, on film, on science fiction, on identity and sexuality. His life contained multitudes. You can’t encapsulate all of it. It can’t be done.
So rather than attempt to sum up the fullness of Bowie’s life — I’ve already failed at that — I’ve tried something else instead: A collection of 20 fairly random moments from Bowie’s career that I had fun thinking about. I did something similar for Adam Yauch, and then again for Bowie’s friend Lou Reed. I should stress that these are not the greatest moments in Bowie’s career — indeed, they barely touch on the actual music he made. But my hope is that, in looking at those random moments taken all together, we can gain some further understanding of how wide-ranging and impactful Bowie’s work was. I invite you to leave your own in the comments section.
1. THE GLASS SPIDER TOUR
Bowie approached all his albums as statements. And that’s great, but so do plenty of other artists. One thing that fascinates me about Bowie is that, more than almost anyone else, he also approached his tours as statements. And the Bowie tour that still seems to resonate the most is the one he launched during what you’d have to call his creative nadir.
In 1987, Bowie had just released Never Let Me Down, the glossy pop confection that just about everyone agrees is his worst album. When he toured it, though, he gave it this absurd and theatrical neon-lit stadium extravaganza visualization that remains utterly baffling to behold, even in YouTube form. At his Glass Spider shows, Bowie started the night by descending from an actual Glass Spider, a 60-foot lit-up monstrosity that, at the time, was the largest touring set ever put together. Bowie reportedly spent a million bucks of his own money in willing it into being. He had Peter Frampton — arguably a bigger star than Bowie himself a decade earlier — in his backing band. He had Toni Basil, a longtime collaborator who’d already scored her one hit, as the person choreographing his eight dancers. And he had a vague and overblown “rock stars vs. reality” narrative arc to the whole thing. At one point in the show, he flew over the audience’s heads in a harness. Just look at this shit:
At the time, of course, people were dubious. And maybe they were right to be dubious. But think about the effect this must’ve had on all the heavily choreographed and conceptualized arena-pop shows of right now. When I got back from Kanye West’s Glow In The Dark tour in 2008 — the show where Kanye shares the stage with nobody else, and where he spends all of it talking to a spaceship computer and laying out a loose space-travel narrative — all I could think was that I’d just seen the closest thing to the Glass Spider tour that anyone from my generation would even attempt.
2. THE KRAFTWERK STANDING OVATION
Bowie had been playing around with Krautrock sounds even before he recorded his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno. And in 1976, he reportedly tried to get Kraftwerk to open for him on tour. They turned him down, so instead of bringing an opening act, he just blasted Kraftwerk’s records into arenas, while screening Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, before coming onstage.
After one show in Paris, Bowie rented an entire nightclub for a private party, and he invited Kraftwerk. When Kraftwerk walked in, legend has is that he and Pop stood up and applauded for five minutes. Here’s how Maxime Schmidt, the manager of Kraftwerk’s French record label, remembers it: “Iggy Pop was gazing devotedly at them, he completely adored them. Both he and Bowie were transfixed, Bowie was saying to Iggy Pop, ‘Look how they are, they are fantastic!’” Isn’t that a great image? I love that image.
3. THE LUTHER VANDROSS DISCOVERY
Bowie’s list of collaborators is long and august, but one of the most fascinating wouldn’t become known until years after working with Bowie. For my money, the 1975 soul-music experiment Young Americans, on which Bowie broke from glam-rock for good, is the most fascinating album in Bowie’s discography. Lester Bangs once called Young Americans “a weird and utterly incongruous melange of glitter sentiment, negritudinal trappings, cocaine ecstasy, and Vegas schmaltz.” (And yes, he really did write “negritudinal.” A lot of Bangs’ stuff has not aged too well.) Bowie didn’t just toy around with ’70s soul; he fully embraced it, and you won’t find a better example of a rock star doing R&B than a song like “It’s Gonna Be Me.” And when he recorded the album, he had one collaborator who would reshape the way R&B sounded in the next decade: A very young Luther Vandross.
Vandross sang backup on Young Americans, and he co-wrote the album track “Fascination.” When Bowie toured the album, Vandross was in the band. And Bowie was reportedly very supportive of Vandross, telling him that the next year would be his year. It wasn’t; Vandross’ solo career didn’t take off until a few years later. But when it did, he became one of the defining voices of the ’80s.
4. THE EXTRAS APPEARANCE
In 2006, Bowie made a cameo on Ricky Gervais’ BBC comedy Extras, playing himself. In the episode, Gervais meets Bowie at a party and causes inspiration to strike. It’s just savage, partly because it’s oddly plausible.
5. THE RAW POWER MIXING JOB
One of my favorite Bowie albums isn’t even a Bowie album; it’s The Idiot, the 1977 solo debut from Bowie’s friend Iggy Pop. Bowie produced the album and essentially lent Pop his aesthetic, and he even toured as the pianist in Pop’s band later that year. That album is fucking awesome, but it wasn’t Bowie’s first attempt at producing Iggy.
In 1973, Bowie served as a co-producer on Raw Power, the third album from Iggy’s seismically important band the Stooges. Iggy had originally produced the album himself, but the label didn’t like what he did with it. So instead, they got Bowie to remix it, which he did in a day or two. Bowie’s version of the album, the one that eventually came out, was so thin and weird that it remains divisive to this day. He made everything sound dry and chaotic, he buried the drums, and he essentially smothered the heaving rock beast that the Stooges were. There are people who love Bowie’s version of the album — including some members of the band — and there are people who hate it. (Pop released his own mix of it years later.) And his flattened-out mix remains one of the great perverse and counterintuitive decisions in rock history. I kind of hate Bowie’s version of the album, but I also admire it, if that makes any sense at all.
6. THE MTV CALL-OUT
During his most drug-zonked years in the ’70s, Bowie did some truly clumsy and unfortunate flirting with fascism, saying that Britain could benefit from a fascist government and other such dumb shit. (He also used his fingers to make his eyes slanty in the “China Girl” video, which yeesh.) But where it counted, Bowie struck blows against pervasive rock-music racism. He did so most visibly in 1983, when he sat for a video with the early-days MTV. Back then, MTV was fully segregated, thinking of itself as a rock station and acting accordingly. (It would take Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video to end that insanity.) And Bowie, a foundational MTV artist if ever there was one, wasn’t having it. The clip of him taking his MTV interviewer to task has been making the Twitter rounds today, and it is very much worth watching.
In our 1983 David Bowie interview, he criticizes MTV for not playing enough music videos by black artists. https://t.co/G2ePJFcaRN
— MTV News (@MTVNews) January 11, 2016
7. THE WARHOL PEFORMANCE
In an all-time great moment of random-ass casting, Bowie played Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquit, a role that required a very silly wig. It’s not that Bowie really reminds anyone of Warhol, though there are certainly connections. (Bowie and Warhol are two of the greatest artists ever to play around with ideas of image and celebrity. Bowie and Warhol were both close with Lou Reed. Bowie sang about Warhol on Hunky Dory.) It’s that sometimes, you need an iconic face to play an equally iconic face. It’s the only way to keep the viewer from being like, “Come on, that’s not fucking Andy Warhol.” Instead, it becomes, “That’s fucking David Bowie!”
8. THE SOUL TRAIN PERFORMANCE
White artists rarely appeared on Soul Train during the show’s ’70s peak. White rock singers damn sure never did. But during his Young Americans/Station To Station era, Bowie slid through, lip-syncing “Golden Years” and “Fame” and looking like he belonged, in a strange sort of way. His interview was halting and awkward, and Don Cornelius called him “Davie Boo-ie.” But his performance was smooth and carnivorous, and the setting intimidated him not at all.
9. THE VELVET GOLDMINE DENIAL
In 1998, Todd Haynes set out to make a sort of impressionistic Bowie-inspired glam musical, and the movie he made, Velvet Goldmine, was just ravishing. Bowie hated the idea of it, and he ended up hating the movie, too. He wouldn’t let Haynes use his music, and he also threatened to sue when he saw the script. Haynes had to change his script and make his protagonist less Bowie-esque. But even though I like the movie, and even though it would’ve been improved with Bowie’s approval and music, you have to respect Bowie’s feelings of protectiveness over what he’d created.
10. THE FIRST SONG BOWIE EVER RECORDED AS “DAVID BOWIE”
Bowie started recording in 1966, but he didn’t become “David Bowie” until 1966, when, at the age of 18, he recorded the single “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” with his band the Lower Third. “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is a really cool song, a hazy psychedelic sprint that finds Bowie’s theatrical, declamatory vocals already nearly fully-formed. It’s fun to think about Bowie in terms of Scott Walker. If Bowie’s final album ★ (Blackstar) sounds a bit like Walker’s experimental recent material, then maybe it’s appropriate that “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” would sound a bit like the music Walker was making with the Walker Brothers way back then.
11. THE “UNDER PRESSURE” ISOLATED VOCALS
Five years ago, some enterprising sound-engineer type took all of Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s vocals from the classic 1981 duet “Under Pressure” and removed all the music from them. The result is nearly as weirdly gripping as the song itself. When the clip first made the internet rounds, Mercury’s vocals were the ones that got all the attention. And they are astounding. It’s possible that no iconic rock frontman has ever possessed the vocal firepower that Mercury had. But listening to it today, Bowie’s vocals are pretty fucking amazing, too. In a way, his function is to ground Mercury, to offer ballast to all Mercury’s wildest flights. But who else could’ve sung Bowie’s part? He’s feral and stentorian all at once. He howls and he caws and he declaims like an orator. It’s really something.
12. THE EXISTENCE OF VANILLA ICE
Kanye West sampled Bowie’s “faaaaaame” howl on Jay-Z’s “Turnover.” Public Enemy sampled him on “Night Of The Living Baseheads.” Puff Daddy won himself a massive hit when he swiped “Let’s Dance” for “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” And yet, rap’s most iconic and earthshaking Bowie sample will always be, arguably, the most embarrassing.
In 1989, Vanilla Ice, producing his own eventual megahit “Ice Ice Baby,” took a loop of the “Under Pressure” bassline and built the song out of it. He didn’t credit or clear the sample at first, though he would later. Without that bassline, Vanilla Ice doesn’t exist, and without David Bowie, that bassline doesn’t exist, at least not in the form it took. And given that “Ice Ice Baby” was the crossover smash that, in a lot of ways, made rap music safe for suburban white children, it’s safe to say that the music landscape would look very different today without it.
And this one probably deserves its own intro, but Bowie, to the best of my knowledge, only sang on an actual rap song once: “American Dream,” a P. Diddy track from the Training Day soundtrack. It’s both awkward and fascinating, and Bowie sings his heart out on it.
13. THE MICK RONSON FELLATIO
When Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie sunk to the ground to mime like he was sucking genius guitarist Mick Ronson’s instrument, it’s a striking visual now. I wasn’t around in 1973, but I can guess at the climate based on how often Lester Bangs felt free to throw around homophobic slurs. Back then, it must’ve looked like the fucking apocalypse.
14. THE BING CROSBY DUET
Before he died in 1977, beloved crooner Bing Crosby had just enough time to sing a couple of seasonal favorites with Bowie on a Christmas special. Bowie didn’t like “The Little Drummer Boy,” so he made up his own song, “Peace On Earth,” to sing at the same time. This was Berlin-era Bowie, a cocaine alien if ever there was one. But he was also a born performer, and he absolutely sold that performance. Crosby apparently said that Bowie was “clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well.”
15. THE SNOWMAN INTRO
While we’re on the subject of Christmas-themed Bowie TV appearances: One of my kids’ favorite YouTube videos is The Snowman, a wordless and oddly lovely 20-minute cartoon about a little kid making friends with an anthropomorphic showman and flying with him to the North Pole. When the special aired on British TV in 1982, Let’s Dance-era Bowie introduced it by wandering into an attic, in a Christmas scarf, and reminiscing about his younger days. Cocaine-era Bowie is always strangest when he tries to seem most normal, and yet here he is, setting the tone for a perfectly lovely bit of kids’ TV. I don’t know; it works.
16. THE HUNGER, THE MOST DAVID BOWIE MOVIE EVER MADE
Bowie’s most important film role is probably the lead in The Man Who Fell To Earth, a movie that was still inspiring Bowie when he put together his Lazarus musical. His most iconic, at least among my generation, is easily his role as the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. But his most purely Bowie role was as the lead in The Hunger, Tony Scott’s 1983 vampire flick. The Hunger has a Bauhaus cameo and Iggy Pop songs on the soundtrack and seductive bloodlettings and Catherine Deneuve making out with Susan Sarandon. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Bowie didn’t always make sense, either.
17. THE INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS “CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)” MONTAGE
The best-ever use of Bowie’s music in a movie, to my mind, is the totally entrancing Inglourious Basterds montage that Quentin Tarantino set to “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” a song that Bowie wrote for a completely different movie. What a cool scene.
First runner-up is the scene of kids tearing around a German shopping mall to “Heroes.” It’s from Uli Edel’s 1981 movie Christiane F., which featured Bowie making a cameo as himself. I’d never seen or heard of it before my friend Brandon Soderberg posted it on Twitter today.
18. THE JAMES MURPHY ALLIANCE
James Murphy was always a huge Bowie fan, as you can probably tell if you’ve ever listened to a single LCD Soundsystem song, especially a ballad like “All My Friends.” He got to work with him when he made a stunning 10-minute remix of Bowie’s Next Day song “Love Is Lost.” Bowie’s death will probably change the way I feel about Blackstar, but right now, Murphy’s Hello Steve Reich Mix of “Love Is Lost” is probably my favorite Bowie song of this decade.
Murphy would go on to produce Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor,” a song that featured Bowie’s backing vocals, and he played percussion on a couple of tracks from Blackstar. According to some reports, Bowie wanted Murphy to be more involved in Blackstar, but Murphy got busy with other projects, presumably the LCD reunion. I wonder if Murphy is already regretting letting whatever else take precedence over working on Bowie’s final album. Before this morning, I had wondered if maybe Bowie would be a surprise guest at LCD’s Coachella set. If it happens now, it’ll only happen in hologram form.
19. THE “HURT” DUET
Bowie headed out on a co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails in 1995. I had friends who went. I didn’t go; I’m an idiot. The shows would end with Bowie and Trent Reznor singing a few songs together, and one of those songs was Reznor’s mournful self-abuse ballad “Hurt,” remade with a weird guitar sound that made it vaugely resemble a song from the “Heroes” sessions. Bowie invested that song with a heavy gravity years before Rick Rubin convinced Johnny Cash to do it. I love it.
20. THE ALL-STAR CHRISTMAS SONG
Look: I know it’s not cool to like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” partly because it’s a self-regarding all-star charity singalong like “We Are The World” and partly because of course they know it’s Christmastime in Africa, duh. “Snow” does not have to equal “Christmas” in every part of the world, you yutzes. But I love it anyway, since it’s got a new-wave propulsion that none of those other all-star singalongs ever had.
Bowie himself didn’t sing on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” something I never knew. He was supposed to, and he wanted to, but scheduling prevented it. Still, on a B-side version of the song that I remember hearing on the radio as a kid, Bowie did show up, not singing but recording a message of support that sounded unfathomably cool. And anyway, part of the reason the song worked was that UK pop in 1984 was so stocked with Bowie clones like Boy George, Ultravox’s Chris Cross, Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory, and Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon. That was Bowie’s power: He so thoroughly remade pop music that I was convinced he was on a song that merely wanted to feature him.