David Bowie at the Hartford Civic Center on his Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” David Bowie sings, shaking in a hospital bed, his head wrapped in bandages with buttons over his eyes. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.”
That mind-blowing vision opens his prescient video to “Lazarus,” released on Friday for Bowie’s 69th birthday along with new album Blackstar, inventive as ever with brooding jazz textures and shifting backbeats to match its foreboding lyrics. Two days later, Bowie was dead. Rock’s foremost innovator – who balanced theater and music, the avant-garde and mainstream, gender-bending fashion and dapper-suit suavity – had scripted his devestating last act, his final performance piece, with impeccable timing.“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” David Bowie sings, shaking in a hospital bed, his head wrapped in bandages with buttons over his eyes. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.”
Few had seen his scars, a reported 18-month battle with liver cancer, but his drama could not be stolen. He was revered by many as one of rock’s most recognizable figures over four decades. But everybody knows him this week.
Of course fans knew him across several musical phases and characters – the glam-rock avatar Ziggy Stardust, Philly soul-shaker the Thin White Duke, the ambient Berlin experimentalist and the vaudevillian Let’s Dance populist. Yet beyond those sonic and sartorial trimmings, Bowie reguarly struck an emotive chord. His silken voice even resonated in duets with such diverse mates as Bing Crosby, Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger.
Better yet, of the countless tributes pouring in, many who met Bowie spoke of his sense of grace and graciousness, even to those he would casually encounter. He was certainly gracious the one time that I met him at Fort Apache Studios in Cambridge, where I did a short one-on-one interview with Bowie in April 1997, before he and his guitarist Reeves Gabrels performed an acoustic set for WBCN.
But I oddly felt more of a personal connection (however oblique) when Bowie played two nights at the Orpheum Theatre that fall. I loved his new jungle-and-electronica-inspired Earthling, which made my Top 10 albums that year. But when I reviewed his first Orpheum concert for the Globe, I disliked several things (distracting visuals and stobe lights, lack of balance in song presentation) and actually came close to panning the show. I went again the second night just for fun, and that’s when I encountered another trait of Bowie’s, his wicked sense of humor. He made reference to my review onstage, telling the crowd something like “I don’t usually read the papers, but I have to take issue with what was said… they wrote that I have a crack band, and I’ll have you know that nobody in my band does crack!” That was it. The funny thing was that he tweaked his set in ways that dispelled my main complaints from the night before. Did the great Bowie mischievously adapt to a bit of constructive criticism? I don’t know about that, but the guy was so sharp, an amazing performer ever-natural in his whims.
After hearing Blackstar last week, I immediately knew the album would figure in my Top 10 considerations this year, but of course now I’ll be in so much company on that count. It’s still surely too dark and off-kilter for people who only love Bowie for hits like “Space Oddity,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans,” “Let’s Dance,” or “Modern Love,” yet even such accessible classics as “Heroes,” “Fame” and “Golden Years” shared strange sensibilities.
In any case, Bowie’s sweeping legacy remains secure. There’s never been anyone quite like him, and those who come the closest admit they nicked what they do from him. He was an original artist to the end. “Oh, I’ll be free, just like that bluebird,” Bowie sings at the end of “Lazarus.” “Oh, I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me.”
Here are some notable Bowie performances, in videos and onstage:
“TVC15” and “Boys Keep Swinging” on Saturday Night Live
“Ashes to Ashes”
“Heroes” at Live Aid
“Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby
“Under Pressure” with Freddie Mercury/Queen performance mix from Wembley Stadium
“The Last Thing You Should Do” with Robert Smith at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden