David Bowie (1947-2016) is dead, following an 18-month battle with cancer. He passed peacefully surrounded by members of his family.
Bowie was one of the most innovative and influential musical artists of the rock era and of the 20th century. He of the ever-changing, usually outlandish attire, hair styles, and makeup had the ability to bring power and compelling presence to any song he sang, and his range included acting as well as music.
He is said to have been the inspiration for the film portrayal of the young Mozart in "Amadeus." He did an album co-produced with John Lennon. Even before any of that, he sang an original Christmas song on American TV with Bing Crosby of "White Christmas" fame. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the year after it opened. His interview with TV legend Dick Cavett, with Bowie deep in his terrible period of heavy cocaine use, continues to attract YouTube viewers because it is so expansive.
We could go on grabbing snippets of Bowie's career and citations of the influence he has imparted to our culture and continue for many paragraphs — so we'll focus on just two aspects of one thing.
In 1969, the year the first Apollo landing on the Moon made Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Werner von Braun heroes and household names, the hit song, "Fly Me to the Moon" was already old. It was Bowie who gained global fame with his rather surreal dramatic parody song "Space Oddity." Its iconic opening doubled line, "Ground Control to Major Tom," is instantly recognizable 45+ years later. And it's notable that its title breaks the songwriting rules, coming not from anywhere in its lyrics. It's from the Arthur C. Clarke novel/Stanley Kubric film two years earlier, "2001: A Space Odyssey." That was especially risky when Bowie wasn't yet well known.
Fast-forward to 2013. NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield used his very limited spare time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to perform and produce his own rendition of Bowie's "Space Oddity." Hadfield ably sang it in weightlessness.
Hadfield's music video—which is now nearing 28 million views on YouTube and is the first ever done as a truly produced project from all live takes by a singer in space—is the astronaut singing Bowie's song with an acoustic guitar, the Earth spinning past through the window, and it's accompanied by an original keyboard performance.
This morning, astronaut Hadfield posted on Twitter: "Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman."
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Twenty-eight million YouTube views. Of a cover. In addition to what, billions and billions of spins, as Carl Sagan would have said, of Bowie's original recording? All about the the fictional "Major Tom," the nonetheless very human experience of one person in space. Made real as life imitated art imitating life when a real astronaut performed it in space.
In space. Something we supposedly don't care about any more, if you listen to the politicians preaching their teabag doctrine of austerity. Despite 28 million YouTube views. And the Oscar contender, "The Martian." And the fact that if we ever get off our asses and finally do go to Mars—and beyond—it'll be at least as much because artists inspire us as because technology enables us. Because the technology could long ago have been applied to sending Major Tom as to blasting birds in video games on your phone.
Much can and will be said about the singular career of David Bowie.
Long before it was time to write his epitaph, David Bowie fulfilled the phrase that every art teacher presents to every class on day one: reinterpret reality, the good, the bad, the excessive and the banal, and present it back, meaningfully, with impact, thoughtfully and memorably, as more than a reflection, as a statement of and for society, so people are empowered and enabled to see things in a different way, more expansively, more connected, with implications they might otherwise have missed or been ignorant of, altogether.
In that sense, we can always be envious of David Bowie at least as much as we will miss him.
So much of Bowie's work was expansive beyond the confines of atmosphere and gravity. There was Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars years before robotic Mars rovers were launched with their spider-like appendages.
On Friday—Bowie's 69th birthday—the artist unexpectedly released his 25th and final album, "Blackstar," continuing his beyond-Earth theme, and not just with the title. The surprise release came with a video single, "Lazarus," in which Bowie portrays the biblical character who is raised from the dead.
Even at the end, it's pure Bowie. Atop the funerary wrappings over his eyes, the centuries-old custom of a coin placed over each eyelid is represented by a disc of sliced black olive. It's a perfect parting statement for an artist whose abiding characteristic is that he was always able to see things differently and to convey his vision to the rest of us.
Goodbye, Ziggy Stardust.