Cridlin: In his life and death, David Bowie achieved the highest art

Published Jan. 12, 2016

"In certain musical circles, there is no higher compliment than a comparison to David Bowie."

I wrote those words Saturday, one day before Bowie, the transcendent rock singer and icon of originality, succumbed to an 18-month battle with cancer.

I'd just begun writing a review of Bowie's new album, Blackstar, released Friday, on his 69th birthday. It is dark, challenging, shape-shifting, shadowy, eyes resolutely on the future, not the past. It is also, in the grand Bowie tradition, so excellent you cannot believe it.

If any artist could sound so vital and irreplaceable just a day before his death, it was Bowie. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell To Earth — he was known by many names in a career that spanned a half-century and, many will argue, several planes and dimensions of time and space.

Bowie's most popular singles were not just career-defining, but life-defining — Space Oddity, Suffragette City, Heroes, Changes, Fame, Let's Dance. He sang often of lives adrift and untethered — from love, from reality, from earth, from oneself — and was the first pop star to recognize how essential feeling alien could be to feeling human.

His relentlessly chameleonic onstage appearance made him an icon of fashion and film, appearing in movies like Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Prestige and Zoo­lander. He was funny, too. His self-effacing cameo on the HBO series Extras, director Judd Apatow tweeted Monday, "was as good as comedy gets."

But citing the greatest hits of Bowie's life feels perfunctory, and almost misses the point of why generations around the world loved him so deeply.

When it comes to what we now know as alternative music — or maybe even alternative culture as a whole — there simply was no one larger. He was revered by his fans and even more so by his fellow creators, artists who cherished vision, reinvention and independence above all. Bowie was their Elvis, their Dylan, their Lennon and McCartney, all rolled into one.

"The story of my life is David Bowie," said Tony Michaelides of St. Pete Beach, a British rock industry veteran who fell in love with Bowie as a teen and later worked as his tour publicist. "I always thought, if you're going to make an image of what a pop star could look like, how can you get any better than Elvis Presley or David Bowie?"

Bowie was a bellwether not only of cultural cool, but of how cool you could be, too, no matter your age in life. Michaelides recalled once rifling through a date's record collection, back in the mid-'70s, when Bowie was already unlike anything the world had ever seen.

"I'd just bought Ziggy Stardust, and I found Hunky Dory," Michaelides said. "I just thought, My god, I'm taking this girl out, and she's got the album before Ziggy Stardust.

"So of course I married her, and I've got two kids with her. What else was I supposed to do?"

As a young man in Brixton, Tony Rifugiato, co-owner of Daddy Kool Records in St. Petersburg, ran in circles adjacent to Bowie and watched as the singer, born and raised David Robert Jones, changed the way South London looked and behaved almost overnight.

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"He followed fashion or broke fashion," said Rifugiato, who is two years younger than Bowie. "When Ziggy Stardust came out, for instance, there were people that were friends, and their daughters were suddenly walking into the living room with Bowie makeup and big orange dots on their forehead. Everybody was looking like Ziggy in those days."

It is true: No one ever looked cooler, acted cooler, sounded cooler doing just about anything than Bowie, a man of effortless panache. Yet he never found himself constrained to the shackles of style.

Back in 1974, after his Orwellian concept album Diamond Dogs, he was set to perform at Tampa's old Curtis Hixon Hall when a trailer containing his elaborate set and impossible wardrobe failed to arrive from Atlanta on time. Didn't matter: Bowie played anyway, uncostumed and stripped to his essence for 5,200 Floridian fans. Among the Bowie faithful, the gig remains legendary.

Bowie molded and remolded pop culture in too many ways to count, in tidal waves and tiny ripples that may never fully ebb. He collaborated with everyone from Bing Crosby to Nine Inch Nails, John Lennon to Giorgio Moroder, Tina Turner to Arcade Fire. Hip-hop producers sampled his work to enormous success — none more famously than Vanilla Ice, whose worldwide smash Ice Ice Baby was entirely on the bass line from Bowie and Queen's 1981 single Under Pressure.

"David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations," Kanye West tweeted early Monday, "so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime."

The word lifetime here is so crucial. In the past decade, Bowie had all but retired from live performance. But he remained a creator, an innovator, a mastermind. Blackstar is proof that Bowie left this earth on his own visionary terms. After battling cancer for 18 months — his family has not yet publicly said what kind — Bowie knew Blackstar would be his final album, and death is a constant theme throughout. In a ghostly croon, amid swirls of ominous beats and free-form saxophones, he sings of executions and death and heaven, "scars that can't be seen."

"He always did what he wanted to do," Blackstar producer Tony Visconti — a frequent collaborator — wrote on Facebook. "And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of art."

On I Can't Give Everything Away, he summarizes his chimerical, contradictory life in lyrics that will live on forever:

Seeing more and feeling less

Saying no but meaning yes

This is all I ever meant

That's the message that I sent.

Once again, the man was ahead of us all. Only David Bowie knew the truth. In death as in life, he remains incomparable. There is no higher compliment one can give.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.