David Bowie has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 69 years old.
He was a giant.
His music was not what we would necessarily classify as Americana, despite his sweeping influence on so many forms of truly American music. It would be impossible to imagine modern rock and roll without his influence, for sure. But also, this morning as I opened my eyes to Twitter, I saw notes from bluegrass artists like Sean Watkins and singer-songwriters like Jason Isbell, extolling the virtues of a career like Bowie’s.
I had a great dream once where David Bowie was teaching songwriting. Class was in a parking garage. I gave him my sweater. I’ll miss him.
— Josh Ritter (@joshritter) January 11, 2016
David Bowie, you gave us some of most courageous, outrageous and beautiful music, thank you for your work, we lost a true Great today..
— Glen Hansard (@Glen_Hansard) January 11, 2016
Bowie was the only pop star from my schooldays who wasn’t dismayed by punk. It inspired him and he inspired it. A truly transcendent artist.
— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) January 11, 2016
I hate this. David Bowie, you were as brave & inspiring as them come, musically and otherwise. I am in shock & have no other words. R.I.P.
— Sean Watkins (@seancwatkins) January 11, 2016
The effect Bowie’s music and life had on people gives me faith in the idea that my own life’s work is worthwhile. He was peerless. Sad day.
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) January 11, 2016
That career, to which Isbell refers, spanned generations. It included everything from rock and roll to mainstream pop, dance music to biting social commentary.
I came to David Bowie, as many in my generation did, through his appearance in the weirdo puppet-fueled adventure film The Labyrinth. His Tina Turner hairdo, his spandex pants and face paint, the way he so effortlessly fit into a world of fantasy and puppetry as the king of the goblins, were all so bizarre and entrancing to me. David Bowie wasn’t playing a character; he was being an artist.
As I slowly and surely came to explore his music in the years which followed, through the glam and the guitars and the keyboards and the fashion, through the courage and the protest and the daring to be authentically himself, I came to understand that what made Bowie’s character so unforgettable — what made such an indelible impression on a new generation of music fans — was that he embodied whatever he dared to do. And he dared to do it all.
For David Bowie, music and art were not a thing he presented to us; it was who he was.
Here in the roots music world, we celebrate music that is not made with profit as the primary objective. We embrace the subcorporate, the authentic and raw, the honest and unbridled, the stuff that knows where it’s come from and where it may go. We applaud artists who prize the story, the song, the expression, over anything else that may seek to bastardize it. We seek courageous stories from songwriters whose eyes see through all the chaos of the things in which we, in our daily lives, become mired.
David Bowie not only did those things, he owned them. Despite the costumes and the makeup, the high heels and stage show, the dapper tailored suits and often otherworldly sounds behind his voice, there was no hiding in his music. Somehow it didn’t seem that he was putting on a show. Instead, he was letting us see through his eyes. He dared to explore, and invited us to come along.
“Look,” he seemed to demand, “at who and what we are, at what we might do, at how far we can take this.”
May he rest in peace.