Published in Issue #4 | Spring 2016
Our world loses great people daily,
but when I read the news of David Bowie’s death in January, it really hit me, more than I expected or even understood. Finding out that he had secretly battled cancer for 18 months and that the new album, Blackstar, was conceived and executed to coincide with his death left me gob smacked. Throughout the day I found myself contemplating what this artist really meant to me and found some unexpected clarity. To put this into perspective I need to include a bit of background.
I’m 35 years old, part of a generation influenced by Bowie’s era only if we look back. I wasn’t even born when his career was launched or solidified. Yet somehow he’s always been there. Labyrinth was one of the first movies I saw in a theater, and I got scared and had to leave partway through. When Vanilla Ice debuted “Ice Ice Baby” 25 years ago, I had never heard “Under Pressure” and only through that controversy did I learn that somebody else had created that iconic bass line. Three years later, Nirvana paid homage by performing “The Man Who Sold the World” in their Unplugged” performance, making a point to let us know who created that song. Despite being a moody teenager in the ‘90s, I was just a few years too young to see Bowie tour with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, but I was very aware of it. In those years, it was easy to be exposed to Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones and the like. I was fortunate to receive a cassette of The Velvet Underground for Christmas from my cousin one year. I listened to it so much that my car stereo eventually ate it. Bowie was a bit different, and it has only been in my adult years that I really discovered his work in any meaningful way. Having played two instruments in every kind of band and orchestra available through elementary, middle and high school, my musical tastes are diverse, and what really spoke to me about Bowie was his own diversity. Bowie strongly criticized MTV in the channel’s early years for a lack of air time for black artists. While the Vanilla Ice issue became a famous controversy, Bowie quietly collaborated with many of the most important hip-hop artists. Learning more about him and his creative process only deepened my respect for his artistry, his vision and his daring nature. This in turn made me appreciate the music, and in the last few years I have been amazed to see him resurface in pop culture, in everything from Zoolander to Family Guy.
Upon its release, I happened to pick up Rolling Stone and read about the Blackstar album and it made me excited for some new music, a big part of that being my desire to see what he was going to keep doing with his life and career. As it turns out, this is it, but the album represents so much more than I realized at the time and confirms the genius of his work. I realized that what struck me so especially hard was the notion that I may never again see anything like this creative genius. Today’s news cycle is constant, things go “viral” or die, and trends come and go in a flash. Every generation has their challenges, but it appears that our self-inflicted societal distraction may keep us from having the opportunity to see an artist showcase such creative talent throughout their entire life. We’re hardly going to look back on Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus and marvel at 40 years of reinvention and relevancy.
All of this is what made me particularly emotional about today’s news. The thing I came to realize, though, is that it really isn’t true. Today’s access to global information, recording technology, and crowd funding provides artists with possibilities never before seen. If we look past the mainstream offerings of American Idol and the like, we will continue to find true creatives dedicating their lives to their craft, and we can enjoy it and celebrate it more quickly and easily than ever before. It is happening today, and it is even happening right here in Charleston. The collaborative effort and performance by Marcus Amaker and Marjory Wentworth at Mayor Tecklenburg’s inauguration is proof that exciting, groundbreaking artistic expression is out there, and it’s relevant. What artists need is our support. Purchasing albums instead of sharing them, attending live performances and donating to small and large artistic organizations are just a few ways that we can play our part, but support can be provided on any budget. Speaking out to our legislators when it comes to funding of the arts or censorship is critical. It’s also free. As we consider how a Man About Town conducts himself, I would like for all of us to commit to supporting and promoting the arts and to instill that appreciation in our children. Reflecting on David Bowie’s life and career rekindled a passion for me, and we can and should ensure that other artists continue to have the opportunity to share their own passion with the world.