January 27, 2016

MALPASS | Heroes

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I don’t care if it’s old news by now; I’m going to talk about David Bowie. I can’t say anything about his life, on stage or off, that hasn’t already been said, so I’m going to talk about what he meant to me as an artist. This is by no means a summary of his life, or a compendium of his deeds, or even a tribute. This is simply about how his work impacted my life and how it continues to do so.

My initial introduction to Bowie wasn’t anything special. My folks had Let’s Dance and Best of Bowie, which I listened to occasionally growing up. The former I liked for its danceable beats, but while the latter interested me, I don’t think I really got his music until later in high school. I didn’t understand the lyrics or the weirdness of his sound. I was at a point where I only listened to music if it was instantly palatable, and Bowie can sometimes be an acquired taste.

Thinking about it, it was actually Bowie’s music videos that truly drew me in. Don’t get me wrong, I liked his music (what little I had experienced), but I didn’t really get him until I saw the whole picture. Before that, all I was able to picture was the blonde haired boxer on Let’s Dance. But when I saw his music videos and what he did in them (“Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” readily jump to mind), I knew there was so much more to experience. I was entranced by this lanky, otherworldly figure who crooned and wailed about drugs and space.

So, I decided to get The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, widely regarded as his best work and coming in at number 35 in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” And the more I listened to it, the more I was blown away. It was so glam, but not in a chintzy way. It was the kind of glam that put on way too much makeup and made itself known to the world, whatever the world might think of it. The album tells the story of its titular character, who comes to Earth as a rockstar in its last five years of existence. He brings a message of love, but is ultimately destroyed by his own wild lifestyle. It’s weird, electrifying and melancholy at the same time.

It struck a chord with me in a way I did not expect. I was in high school at the time, probably around my junior year. Like everyone else at that age, I had no idea who I was, but I knew I wanted to be something different, yet I didn’t know how. Bowie helped give me the confidence I needed to be my own person. He took all his weirdness and otherness, and somehow turned it into something completely alluring.

It wasn’t until college that I reached his more coked-up works. Initially, I was reluctant to give them a listen. I was so enamored with his alien flair that I couldn’t imagine I would like this darker character he turned into. But again, I found myself identifying with what he was singing and how he presented himself (sans the cocaine addiction). The weirdness was still there, but added to it were elements of introspection, anxiety and even desperation; all feelings I found myself experiencing in my Cornell career. I was especially entranced by the B-side instrumentals of “Heroes” and Low, whose haunting melodies and riffs expressed so much when words could not.

I was saddened by his death, but not as much as I thought I would be. It was an artistic and inspirational loss, to be sure, but I found comfort in his final album, titled Blackstar. It is truly a concluding work, reminiscing on prior accomplishments yet still boldly striding in a new direction. It’s an album written in full preparation for death, and the result is unforgettable. Every song is an emotional punch, and the album concludes with a wistful, bittersweet yet warm goodbye to the world.

Had Bowie died without releasing Blackstar, I would not have had closure. But because he was able to turn his death into, in the words of his producer Tony Visconti, “a work of art” it was somehow okay. It’s almost like death was his final performance. Cancer is a terrible, remorseless, often arbitrary thing, but despite that Bowie made it seem that he died as he lived: on his own terms. There’s something comforting in that. He was not perfect, no one ever is, but the way he conducted his art and self will always be an inspiration to me. Farewell, Starman and thank you for everything.

Soren Malpass is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at skm94@cornell.edu. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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