One year ago today, David Bowie left this world. Little did we know at the time that his death was merely the beginning of a deluge of death. From David Bowie to Carrie Fisher and everyone in between, the year 2016 witnessed what seemed like an unprecedented number of cultural icons passing away.
But David Bowie was the first. I remember a year and two days ago, I was flush with the music of Backstar, Bowie’s final album. In the days leading up to its release, saxophonist Donny McCaslin was interviewed on NPR about what it was like for him and his band to record with Bowie. The music I had heard in that interview was spellbinding. Hearing the entire album only more so. The CD was released on Friday, 8 January 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday. By Sunday night, he was gone. The shock I felt was palpable, as it was for folks the world over. I wrote about my thoughts back then. You can read it here. Today, I’m talking about the year since.
I’ll freely admit that I went into a Bowie-only place a year ago this week. I played his songs constantly, not just Backstar, but his entire discography. Later in the spring, I contributed a review of the album. That’s here.
Then…nothing. For the longest time, I discovered I couldn’t listen to any of his music. The emotions I felt remained raw. That may sound maudlin, but the older I get, the more emotional I’ve become. In early summer, I was cleaning out my garage, the radio station tuned to the local classic rock station. “Changes” came on. I held it together until Bowie sang “Turn around and face the strange.” That was it. Waterworks flowed. I sat down on the floor and just listened. It had been months since I had heard his voice, and now it spoke to me from beyond the grave.
He was always just there. Even during his decade-long absence from recording music—or even the media—from 2004 to 2013, it didn’t really matter because somewhere, probably in New York, Bowie was alive. Now, he’s not. Now, he’s had his final say. And damn if Backstar isn’t just the perfect send-off.
When the fall rolls around each year, I tend to get in a Bowie mood, especially his later catalogue. I love his post 1995 oeuvre and I contend that some of those songs can stand head and shoulders with “Ziggy Stardust,” “Heroes,” and “Scary Monsters.” But I refrained. Not sure why. The David Bowie vacuum persisted.
Christmas was going to be sad, too. His version of Little Drummer Boy with Bing Crosby is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. Now, they’re both gone. One night, I watched the video before heading out to pick up some take-out food. Tears came to my eyes, but they weren’t deep. In retrospect, that moment was the turning point.
On the always excellent New Yorker Radio Hour, Donny McCaslin was interviewed. What was it like to be Bowie’s last band? What has this year been like for him and his band since? There’s this moment, about the 35-minute mark, when the interviewer asks McCaslin about the time Bowie came to hear the McCaslin band play. “So, one night, you were playing, and David Bowie walked in,” the interviewer says. Right then, both of them paused a second or two, just marveling at the gravity of her sentence. They both kinda laughed, sighed at what a moment that must have been for McCaslin. He goes on to tell the interviewer about the process of meeting Bowie and, ultimately, recording with him. You get the palpable sense that McCaslin is truly humbled to have worked with Bowie. Hearing him reminisce about the recording sessions, how Bowie was still pushing the boundaries of his music, helped me remember all the reasons I enjoy Bowie’s music.
And I had not listened in awhile.
Time to change.
That was just last week.
The more I considered McCaslin’s thoughts on the Backstar project, how Bowie was always looking forward, I looked back on 2016 and the music I discovered. I found a lot of music I loved, more than any year in recent memory. A few weeks after Blackstar, I found The Struts and their Everybody Wants album, my favorite of the year. Listened to those songs almost nonstop last year, and you could hear Bowie’s influence on their sound. I went on to enjoy albums by Reagan Browne, Wolfmother, The Heavy, Robert Ellis, The Eccentrics, Survive, Twenty One Pilots to say nothing of veteran performers who also released stellar albums last year: Sting, Ace Frehley, Santana, The Monkees, KISS, Michael Buble, and Lady Gaga. Come to think of it, I did what Bowie always did: find new things, move beyond the things to which I constantly listened.
In these past few days, it’s like a veil has lifted. Perhaps a moratorium, maybe even a mourning period. Not sure, but I’ve been spinning Bowie classics with great frequency. Just yesterday, on the way home from work, I cranked up “Hallo Spaceboy” and sang at the top of my lungs, giving way to the softer “Everyone Says Hi” and the 2000 live version of “Absolute Beginners,” perhaps my all-time favorite.
So, yesterday, I listened to the four-song EP No Plan. These are the last songs Bowie ever recorded. I haven’t done a deep dive into the songs yet, but on this initial listen, one thing come to mind: this guy still had it. “No Plan” is an ethereal gem where Bowie got to throw his soaring voice one last time. His lyrics of “This is not quite yet” a poignant reminder of what this EP actually is. There’s a nice video for it. “Killing a Little Time” is a crunchy rock song, visceral in its drum beat, the McCaslin band adding that special little extra spice to really propel this song forward. The pianist channels Mike Garson a la “Aladdin Sane” and it’s wonderful.
Then there is “When I Met You,” the last song, and the last new song we’ll ever hear from David Bowie. I’ll admit something: there was a part of me that didn’t want to listen to it. I wanted there always to be just one more song out there, still something new to help me imagine Bowie was still with us. Then I shook my head. The thought, no matter how genuine, was, in the end, silly. I pushed play and the song washed over me. Bowie’s voice was still strong, clear, and direct. A little over four minutes later, the song faded away. And that was it.
Yes, it’s a somber thought to realize that you’ll never again hear new music from an artist with whom you’ve grown from young teenager to middle aged man. But, damn, is his body of work simply stunning. All the countless hours listening to his songs, part of the soundtrack of my life. All those times seeing Bowie in concert, watching him perform and displaying his God-given gifts to the audience. All the memories. All the feelings. All of it. It’s breathtaking.
And there’s one last thing, too. His example. When it came to music and art, he acknowledged the past, but kept his eyes on the future. Where some rock stars settle into a comfortable existence making hardly any new music, David Bowie pushed forward. He always wanted to hear the next great thing, the new singer, the new band. By one definition, the new could also be characterized as the strange. That’s the kind of example we can all get behind. Yes, cherish and nourish our long-time favorites, but make room for the new. I certainly did that in 2016.
And I’ve continued into this new year. NPR Music has a Tiny Desk Concert with Donny McCaslin. It was my first time to hear his ensemble. In just these songs, I could easily hear what caught Bowie’s ear. As I wrote on Facebook, “Holy cow this is some incredible music. Donny McCaslin and his band backed David Bowie on his final album last year. Here, you get 2 originals plus their version of “Lazarus.” McCaslin’s tenor drips with emotion, both strident and somber, but it is keyboardist Jason Lindner and drummer Mark Giuliana that really make these pieces shine. I’ll definitely be getting their new album….Today?”
Today marks a full year since David Bowie passed away. To commemorate his life, his music, and his example, I bought McCaslin’s latest CD, Beyond Now. It’s fantastic. But of course it is. David Bowie knew good music when he heard it. He always made room for the new.
To put it simply, I’m following David Bowie’s example. I’ve turned and faced the strange.
Now, it’s your turn.