I am deeply saddened to hear of David Bowie's death. He was a tremendous influence on my life as a musician and as a person.
I had little familiarity with his music before "Let's Dance" came out -- I was a freshman in high school -- and that was when I first really heard and appreciated him. I dug into his back catalog, discovering how inventive, great, and different his music was. Not just different from what else was out there (though that was always the case), but how different his records were from each other. Most artists struggle to break through and then spin variations on that successful theme for the majority of their career. Not Bowie.
While David Bowie's work does have recurring themes and favorite tropes, he never really repeated himself the way most musicians do. ("Ziggy"/"Aladdin" and "Low"/"Heroes" are about as close as he gets to repeating himself, and I'll give him a pass because those were rich veins to mine, and he still managed to evolve.)
Bowie made total artistic statements with his records, changing his image to reflect the music and vice versa. It was a potent combination and made me think about "albums" and "songs" as more than just sound. He was both original and more than willing to reference many other artists and works.
After the huge success of "Let's Dance" faded ("Tonight" is underrated, by the way), Bowie got weird. With hindsight, the "commercial failures" of his late 80s/early 90s output seem more like initial explorations or warm-ups for the increasingly adventurous records he'd make for the rest of his career.
In this respect -- achieving mainstream acceptance, then turning around and walking off into the arty wilderness -- Bowie was very much like Scott Walker (who he greatly admired) and David Sylvian (who owes a great debt to Bowie). This, too, became something for me to learn, understand, and emulate.
He was financially successful as an artist, and again an innovator here, with "Bowie bonds". But his true success is in the tremendous cultural impact he had. Many artists (if not entire musical genres), including some of my favorites, owe their entire careers to bits of things Bowie did once and put aside. That's not a slight to these artists and their music, but rather an indication of how much territory Bowie covered.
He also had great impact in my peer group. His music and different guises spoke to many of my friends, with different messages for each of us. Which Bowie did you like? We shared our favorite albums, turned each other on to his different phases, and anticipated his future releases. I think of periods in my life and remember which Bowie albums I was into at the time.
I find myself surprised at how deeply I feel the loss of his death, fighting back tears all day long. Perhaps it is the suddenness. Like his recent work, his passing was unexpected, seemed ahead of its time, and most people don't like it.
This time, not liking it is the correct response.
Thank you for the music, David. I miss you more than I thought possible.
For those who have never heard David Bowie at all, or heard him beyond the hits, or are curious, I compiled a list of my favorite tracks from nearly all of his major albums. Even when David Bowie is singing someone else's song, it becomes his.