Aired Jan. 16, 2016 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_goP2CmBVI
Shalom Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a Rabbinical Reflection for the week of January 17th, 2016.
It is time to say a sad Shalom to David Bowie, the super-talented singer, songwriter, rock star, and icon who died of liver cancer on January 10th. Most musicians find one persona in a career and stick with it: Joe Smith sings country, Edna Whatever does dance pop, Mordecai Ben David does . . . whatever he does. But David Bowie changed his look, his style, his sound more times than I change my underwear. Well, maybe that’s not the best example, since I’m kind of lazy in the laundry department, but you know what I mean. He started with twee British pop tunes like “Come and Buy My Toys” and “Love You `Til Tuesday,” songs that weren’t meant to last even until Monday. But they pointed the way towards freaky folk and post-Apollo weirdness and “Space Oddity,” the story of a man who gets completely lost in space and never comes back—like Gary Busey.
Wearing dresses and cavorting in transgender weirdness, Bowie pushed the conventions of behavior and attire—which could only mean one thing: he was destined for rock and roll. He created Ziggy Stardust, a rock idol with a comet-like trajectory and really, really tight pants. Suddenly, just going onstage and playing songs wasn’t enough anymore. You needed costumes and makeup and pyrotechnics and huge hydraulics. Long before Grizabella rose to cat heaven and Bono started singing from a claw, Bowie was ascending on a cherry picker and cavorting with glass spiders.
And when all that got too weird and dangerous, Bowie changed again. He became a Thin White Duke, white because he was basically covered head to foot with cocaine powder. But the music remained: “Rebel Rebel,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Young Americans,”—soul music for white people. And believe me, we needed it, because up till then, the closest we got to soul music was Donovan. But even Bowie’s “plastic soul” was the real thing—so real that James Brown stole Carlos Alomar’s riff from “Fame”—not the other way around. They even asked James Brown about it, and he said, quote, “(series of grunts).”
But seriously, Bowie eased off the drugs just a little to save his sanity and then moved on to yet another incarnation: krautrock. He and Brian Eno found themselves in Berlin mixing electronic music and hard rock in a delightful way that could only come out of a country that murdered 40 million people. Bowie would never reach those musical peaks again, and indeed, his most commercially popular years were filled with dance-club pop and sometimes desperate attempts to stay trendy by incorporating that 1980s sound that we all loved so much. (Insert sarcastic facial expression here.)
Did he stay there, though? Of course not. He was David Bowie. He returned to arty, experimental, and often difficult music and stayed there for another two decades. He may not have gotten on the radio with songs like “Slip Away,” “Never Get Old,” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” but anyone with iTunes and ears can find them and hear their worth.
After that, for awhile, David Bowie laid low (no album-title pun intended). He pushed his back catalogue and old concerts and didn’t tour because of a heart condition. But then two years ago, he jumped once more into creativity, secretly recording new tracks with old colleagues. He put out “The Next Day” in 2013, then started working on an off-Broadway show, then released another album on his birthday this year. We all now know the reason for this 18-month burst of activity, and it may be the biggest Bowie takeaway of all. He knew his days were literally numbered. He knew the liver he was punishing 40 years ago was coming back like Rocky for a knockout. He knew he had so much more to do and so little time. So he did it. He pushed himself because any day, he would fall to earth.
Most of us, thank God, don’t have such a diagnosis hanging over our heads. Except we do. Who knows when HaShem will send a drunk driver careening towards us on the highway? Or a Muslim with a backpack? Or a mutated cell that will turn prostates into pancakes and ovaries into rotten eggs? Every day we’re still alive is a challenge to make that day count. To bring something new into the world that wasn’t there the day before.
Maybe it’s a poem. A painting. A table. A scarf. A youtube video of your pet doing something adorable. Okay, maybe the world doesn’t need more of that, but the impetus to strike while our irons are still hot is, perhaps, the greatest function of our human DNA.
Go figure it took a space alien, diamond dog, and spider from Mars to remind us. Thank you, David Bowie. You were a musical hero for a lot more than just one day.
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches, in Great Neck, New York.
(c) 2016 TotalTheater. All rights reserved.