(Pictured: David Bowie and his mid-70s band.)
I nearly fell off the couch this morning after opening Twitter to see that David Bowie had passed, just a couple of days after his 69th birthday and the release of a new album, Blackstar. He’d apparently been fighting cancer since sometime in 2014.
I’d heard of David Bowie but had not heard much by him until “Fame” and Young Americans hit in 1975. I adored his next album, Station to Station (which will figure in a post later this week from The 1976 Project), although the next several were harder for me to appreciate—I dug the blue-eyed soul singer persona, but Bowie had other directions to explore. In college, I was exposed to the pre-“Fame” Bowie and found a lot to like among his most famous album cuts: “Diamond Dogs,” “Panic in Detroit,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel.” In the early 80s, I didn’t much care for the monster singles from Let’s Dance, although I grew to appreciate them over the years. I played “This Is Not America” and “Blue Jean” during my Top 40 days, and I liked them.
Bowie made a couple of significant appearances at this blog over the years. In 2014:
In the fall of , David Bowie was doing a great deal of American TV. In early November, he did The Dick Cavett Show and also appeared on Soul Train, nervously answering questions from the kids in the audience after, it is said, having a few drinks to calm himself. (This was also a time in which he admits to having consumed vast amounts of cocaine; he has said that he doesn’t remember recording “Golden Years,” one of the songs he sang on Soul Train.) Sometime in December, he and his band taped the daytime talk show Dinah! with Dinah Shore, where they burned down the house (and the housewives watching) with “Stay” from Bowie’s then-new album Station to Station. And in between, he appeared on one of the final episodes of Cher. The two singers did a version of Bowie’s “Young Americans” sandwiched around a medley of familiar pop and rock songs, a Vegas-type thing that actually works. (There was more of the showbiz trouper in Bowie than anybody in 1975 expected.) He also performed his recent hit “Fame,” doing a live vocal over the record’s backing track, accompanied by what were then state-of-the-art trippy TV graphics.
When I wrote about the first white artists to appear on Soul Train, Bowie turned up again:
He had recorded much of his 1975 album Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studios, the cradle of Philly soul, and he referred to Soul Train on the title track. [On Soul Train] his performances of “Fame” and his new single, “Golden Years” required multiple takes to get his lip-synch half-right because he hadn’t bothered to learn the words. Bowie told an interviewer that [Don] Cornelius actually took him to the woodshed at one point, saying, “Do you know there are kids lined up to do this show, who have fought their whole lives to try and get a record and come on here?”
Bowie changed his birth name, David Jones, partly because David Jones was a bit too pedestrian a handle for a visionary artist coming up in the fertile 1960s. But it was also because at the time Bowie was beginning his career, he didn’t want to be confused with another David Jones—Davy Jones of the Monkees. It was merely the first instance of his shape-shifting: on his first visit to the States in 1971, the story goes, he was unable to perform in Texas because he didn’t have the proper paperwork, but he got noticed anyhow, when he attended a promotional event wearing a dress—adopting another new persona, on the fly, as he would do for the next 40-plus years, right up to inventive elder statesman, and the end of his life.