David Bowie — The coolest in life, the coolest in death
David Bowie was the coolest, but it took me a while to realize it.
Bowie wasn’t my generation, and I never sought out his work when I was a kid. He was an oldster, and when you’re young, you don’t want to listen to anyone who is your parents’ or your teachers’ age.
But in the ’90s, his influence was everywhere, and the artists who followed in his footsteps — those who would not exist without him — became my favorite artists.
Nirvana covered Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” during their 1993 “MTV Unplugged” performance. Nine Inch Nails worked with Bowie and toured with him in 1995. (They played the Palace together in October of that year, and I still kick myself for not going.) Diddy sampled “Let’s Dance” — OK, he lifted the entire instrumental — for his 1997 smash “Been Around the World.”
Those are the direct links. To dial it back even further, it’s hard to think of any artist who has played with sexuality, gender roles, personae and image that wasn’t deeply impacted by Bowie.
His mark was all over the movies, too. As if the ending of “Se7en” wasn’t creepy enough, Bowie’s disturbing “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” pounds over the backwards-running end credits and leaves you feeling even dirtier. “Clueless” featured a pair of Bowie cues, one set to “Fashion” (as Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is picking out her wardrobe for the day) and another when World Party covers Mott the Hoople’s Bowie-penned “All the Young Dudes” in a sequence roasting ’90s bros for their bogus wardrobe preferences. And David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” memorably opens with a nighttime shot of a road whirring by as Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” pulsates on the soundtrack. (Bowie also appeared in Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” and is the most disturbing element in a movie filled with disturbing elements.)
From Nirvana to Diddy, from “Se7en” to “Clueless,” that’s a pretty wide swath. But Bowie hit them all. His significance was that massive.
I grew to appreciate him in his own right — to the point where I argued it was ridiculous the supposed music junkies in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” were blasting “Heroes” but didn’t know it was a Bowie song — but I never saw him live. It wasn’t until this week that I learned he played Detroit’s State Theatre in 1997, and I instantly regretted not dropping everything and going to that show. (A year later I made it a priority to hit the State to see Marilyn Manson — another artist who wouldn’t exist without Bowie — and I wish now I could somehow trade the two experiences.)
Bowie’s death this week came out of nowhere. His battle with cancer was private and he never made a fuss about it. He never went on a farewell tour, never did a tell-all interview. Instead he recorded “Blackstar” as his final goodbye, released it just days before his death and layered it with references to his passing. Leave it to Bowie to be the coolest, even in death.
Still, my favorite memory of Bowie’s music came during my brother Mark’s wedding, in 2011. Mark had masterminded his playlist to include all his favorite jams from throughout his lifetime, and micromanaged the DJ to stick strictly to that list. The highlight of the night came when the DJ threw on Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and me and my friends hit the dance floor hard. Afterward I remember asking my brother about the inclusion of that song, which I never knew to be one of his favorites. It wasn’t — turns out the DJ snuck that one in on his own. Turns out that he, too, knew that Bowie was the coolest.