The greatest rock star ever started his life with a friend permanently paralysing his left pupil in a fight. However, it was this one punch which Bowie later apparently thanked his friend for, telling him that it gave him “a kind of mystique”. This mystique helped fuel some of Bowie’s greatest creations and enhance iconic images, such as the album cover for Heroes (1977).
“At the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes…”
The cryptic lyric above from the lead single on David Bowie’s last album is a reminder that the unusual appearance of his eyes was a key part of the singer’s star persona. For many people it is the look of the eyes that will be an abiding memory of Bowie, but there was so much more apart from his constantly changing of looks which is why he will rest forever at the top of the list of all the best rock stars who have ever lived.
David Bowie was a man full of different personas; a folksinger, androgyne, alien and a modern pop star, each sparking a new league of imitators. Ever since he wrote Man of Words, Man of Music (1969) which included “Space Oddity”, which the album would later be re-titled because of the release coinciding with the U.S. moon landings, he was on a constant uprising of good music. The truly awesomeness of Bowie can be most simply divided in three parts:
1. The Lyrics:
Seriously, just take some of his top hits. I’m not talking about some obscure works of him, but his most well known, popular songs. You can see there is quite an enormous gap between the profoundness of his songs and most of the top hits.
It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
’Cause Lennon’s on sale again
— David Bowie, Life on Mars (1971)
What other artists have such amazing texts in their top hits?
To put into perspective, this was released in 1971 where the top hits of the year include Imagine (John Lennon), You’ve Got A Friend (James Taylor), Let It Be (The Beatles), Your Song (Elton John). Don’t get me wrong, all of these songs are fantastic. But while Imagine is an incredibly peaceful, simple and straightforward song, both musically and in its message, and that’s what makes its charm, Bowies songs are infinitely more contorted and full of hidden meanings. These are songs that you can listen to a million times, and find new meanings each time you listen to them. Especially while you grow up and understand some things that weren’t apparent at first.
2. His Voice:
Bowie’s voice was brilliant.
Beyond mere range, he had an inimitable style. Bowie said in interviews that he used his voice as a tool or instrument in recording so his vocals became whatever they needed to be to express what he was trying to achieve as a songwriter. He had the ability to sing with incredible ease and confidence and his technique combined with his incredible range was magnificent. However, it has always been odd that among the many things that Bowie was noted for he seemed to be constantly underrated as to what he was first and foremost, a great vocalist.
Bowie’s range has been cited as from G1 to G#5 but on occasion he ranged above and below this, most likely in concert. The falsetto wailing at the end of “Teenage Wildlife” is among some of his highest pitches.
3. The Music:
As soon as the opening note is heard in any of Bowie’s pieces, he places us a thousand miles away from the 4-chord-song so popular in mainstream pop music. He is easily one of the top creative geniuses in the history of music, not so much because of the complexity of his works, but because he makes them so pleasurable and catchy nonetheless. And while you get tired pretty fast of a 4-chord song, with so much diversity in Bowie’s songs, you discover something new at each listening.
There’s that joke that goes “the difference between a rock-star and a jazz-man is that the rock-star plays 4 chords in front of 1 million people, and the jazz-man plays 1 million chords in front of 4 people”. Well, Bowie played 1 million chords in front of 1 million people and they all loved it.
And it was until his final days that Bowie kept expanding and mutating, celebrating his 69th birthday with an album that lived up to all the restless spirit he’d chased his whole career.
A whole career without a predictable moment.
At a time when much of Rock and Roll was congratulating itself on its testosterone content or boring us to death with repetitive chordal music, Bowie was busy creating music that celebrated outcasts such as drag queens, junkies, hustlers, thieves, as well as forging a gender bending stage persona. Bowie embodied Rock and Roll at its best, passionate, searingly romantic, theatrical and above all radical in its intent to challenge prevailing mores and push the culture forward.