I’m not going to talk about his musical or cultural influence (which was prodigious), or his film career (he was possibly the best actor among those recognized first and foremost as singers). If you want to explore all that (as well you should), the papers and blogs will be inundated with it for days to come.
My own brief contribution to the media buzz is only this: I’m going to take a moment to offer another little reason why his passing warrants note here on Black Gate. And no, it’s not just because he was Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s wonderful fantasy film Labyrinth (1986) — although that alone might be reason enough. Nor that in other roles both in film (The Man Who Fell to Earth ) and on stage (e.g. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) he often portrayed himself as an extraterrestrial, a man visiting our planet from the stars.
It’s in the music itself. The influence of fantasy and speculative fiction can be heard throughout his oeuvre, and some of his songs are themselves tiny gems of speculative fiction. I’ll quickly cite two examples.
“Starman” (from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars )
The narrator in this song is listening to the radio late one night when he hears something else coming through: “Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase / That weren’t no DJ that was hazy cosmic jive.”
Who is it? The chorus reveals:
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky / He’d like to come and meet us / But he thinks he’d blow our minds / There’s a starman waiting in the sky / He told us not to blow it / ‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile”
The narrator calls a friend — you, it turns out, as he addresses the listener directly — and discovers that you’ve been picking up these transmissions as well. He suggests switching on the TV to channel two, perhaps to pick up the transmission through that other primitive media device.
Then come the lines that make me chuckle every time I play this song:
“Look out your window I can see his light / If we can sparkle he may land tonight / Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright.”
Indeed, the old guard often get pretty uptight and don’t know what to make of the new, whether it comes in the form of pulp fiction, comic books, rock ‘n roll (in whatever iteration the young ‘uns are playing it at the time), role-playing games, television, film, video games, and whatever bugaboo is next on the horizon.
“Oh! You Pretty Things” (from the album Hunky Dory )
This is quite possibly one of my favorite songs, one I can (and do) listen to over and over again. A tour de force of musical and vocal hooks, the song itself seems to be a paean to the evolution of the human species — “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior.” It’s a sentiment expressed in much of our popular entertainment, from superhero comics and films to science fiction of a more positive bent. It can be a little frightening: “All the nightmares came today / And it looks as though they’re here to stay.”
Through his androgynous glam-rock personae, Bowie himself forecast a culture more open and comfortable with gender diversity. With his alien blood, he was somehow above it all — all the b.s. rigid patriarchal constructions and prejudices and puritan self-righteous bigotry — and allowed us to see it all from that more objective plane. What do we look like from the perspective of the homo superior, the higher self: primates down here trying to rise above, to disentangle ourselves from these bestial roots to attain the level of gods and angels that we have the capacity to become. We have — quite literally — stardust within us. Maybe you’ve heard him coming through on the radio? He’s reminding us that we, too, are children of the stars.