I was stunned today to go onto the Times website and see that David Bowie had died. I knew that Bowie had a new, jazz-inflected album out, called Blackstar, yet hadn’t known that he had pancreatic cancer and was dying. Neither, apparently, had the author of the New Yorker review of Blackstar that came out two days ago. And the Arts section of the Times—today—has a blurb, titled "Saluting David Bowie at Carnegie Hall," announcing a March 31 concert honoring him with a house band of longtime collaborators, surprise guests, etc. Not an event in honor of him because he died; he was supposed to be there. The article's lede: "It's a good time to be David Bowie. He just celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday, released an album, and has a show running off Broadway." So Bowie must have been keeping his illness secret. A big sigh, to think about all that involves.
Intermittently today I’ve been cueing up various songs and revisiting the career of a chameleonic talent who seemed to reinvent himself every few years. The reinvention had an element of pure show, but fundamentally it reflected Bowie’s roving mind and his insistence on finding something else, something different, to be interested in musically—a new noise to make, instead of the same old ones. I admire that.
Sometimes your favorite songs serve as life-and-Zeitgeist markers, musical touchstones of a certain moment in your past and in our collective past. For me, David Bowie was the summer of ’83, when I was out of college and at loose ends, unsure what should come next in my life and how to make it happen, and spent many nights hanging with some dubious friends and drinking beer and dancing at a grungy bar in my hometown, where that trifecta of Bowie songs “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love” and “China Girl,” was keeping the dance floor action-packed.
Bowie in the surprising iteration of that moment was a sleekster in a blazer with sleeves rolled up, loose bow tie dangling, new short hair cut; he was looking more masculine than ever, and his new music was somewhat conventionalized as well, his experimental instinct held in check by the beat of those dance tunes, so that for the first time I had the feeling, aha, so this is the 80s! I wondered about the implications of this spiffy new decade. Bowie seemed to have gotten his act together, neatened up, and emerged as a new person. Would I? That was a lot less clear.
On purely musical grounds, my all-time favorite David Bowie song is probably his 1976 cover of “Wild is the Wind.” The song has an interesting pedigree, and I’ll put links in for those who want to follow its progress over the decades. Written by the Russian-born composer of Western film scores, Dmitri Tiomkin, with lyrics by Ned Washington, the song was created for the eponymous 1957 George Cukor film, which starred Anthony Quinn as a rancher and Anna Magnani as his straying wife, and sung for that film by Johnny Mathis. Mathis’ version highlights his trademark falsetto, but it’s a pretty schmaltzy production.
Seven years later the song was repopularized in a superb cover by Nina Simone. Her version—slowed down and rendered lounge-style with tinkling background piano, emphasized the androgynous quality of her contralto voice.
One wonders if that is partly what attracted Bowie to “Wild is the Wind.” His version, a dozen years later, completed the process of untaming the song from its tame-puppy beginnings in the Mathis original two decades earlier. In its urgency the song hits the ground running. “Love me love me love me love me love me love me say you do... Let me fly away with you...” At key points of arrival, Bowie’s voice goes vaulting way up to the heights and then comes skidding down, creating an effect of vocal arpeggios. The song ends in a howling falsetto that is both haunted and fierce.
Melodically, “Wild is the Wind” in places also strangely echoes the “I will drink your cup of poison” Gethsemane song that Jesus sings in Jesus Christ Superstar, and to my ear the sacrificial agonies of that melody reverberate in an almost subliminal way and make “Wild is the Wind”—Bowie’s version of it—even better. “Wild is the Wind” is a masterpiece of mournful longing and desire.
It’s one of my favorite songs, ever.
Here, for Bowie fans, is a program that my friend Colin McEnroe did today on Connecticut public radio, discussing Bowie’s life, music and career, to which I was glad to contribute. I’ll also note that a July 1971 New York Times review of Bowie’s 1969 album, Man of Words, contained a truly peerless bit of critical commentary. “The day will come when David Bowie is a star,” wrote reviewer Nancy Ehrlich, “and the crushed remains of his melodies are broadcast from Muzak boxes in every elevator and hotel lobby in town.”