The first time I heard David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, I was 16 years old. I was absolutely certain in that moment, listening on the CD player in my bedroom (and later in my car, and then about 1,000 times more on headphones) that it was the most gorgeous song I had ever heard. It didn’t entirely make sense to me. There’s a surrealism to the imagery that Bowie presents in the song, about “sailors fighting in the dancehall” and “lawmen beating up the wrong guy.” It’s almost like a series of entirely unrelated thoughts, a Dadaist catalog of observations set to a majestic arrangement of piano and strings. I’d be dishonest if I said, in that moment, I understood “Life on Mars?” But it moved me all the same.
Bowie explained the song around 25 years later, noting that the narrator in the song “finds herself disappointed with reality… that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.” Perhaps Bowie’s greatest gift to music and to pop culture was to give us that access. With his 1969 hit “Space Oddity,” he very literally stepped away from the doldrums of reality and took his inspiration into outer space. But even in space, Bowie imbued his protagonist Major Tom, a recurring character throughout his career, with an emotional resonance that made him more than a one-dimensional figment. He gave a science fiction tale a beating heart and a relatable sense of loneliness and isolation: “Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do.”
David Bowie often spoke through his characters. And almost every time he released a new album, he emerged with a new persona. Major Tom. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. Whenever we listen to Bowie, we’re almost certainly listening to a different artist, with a different identity, and a different story told through an entirely different lens. He’s been described throughout his career as a chameleon, but that diminishes Bowie’s impact and singular ability to reinvent himself. Bowie didn’t just change his look, or adapt to fashion trends. He became those characters. And maybe they weren’t just characters, but actually different sides of Bowie, himself.
The various personae that Bowie assumed made his presence more colorful, even larger than life. But they also provided a unique filter through which he conveyed universal themes and expressions of emotion that held resonance beyond trends or fashion. In “Five Years,” the opening song to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a concept album about an alien rock star sent to earth to save it from extinction, he captures a fear of mortality in simple words: “We’ve got five years/ My brain hurts a lot/ Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” He repurposed his Major Tom character to reflect on addiction in “Ashes to Ashes.” And in 1977’s “Heroes,” he made the idea of falling in love sound like a revolutionary act by placing two paramours in a secret tryst at the Berlin Wall: “We could be heroes, just for one day.”
Something about the universality and deeply human themes at the core of his music made Bowie nearly ubiquitous in my life, and surely that of countless others. Some of that can be attributed to how much he singlehandedly changed the shape of pop music, and some of it is simply because he wrote timeless songs that remain just as affecting decades after their release. When it came time for my wife and me to settle on a playlist for our wedding, we didn’t declare it complete without including a handful of Bowie songs, namely “Let’s Dance” and “Moonage Daydream.” I once played in a one-gig trivia cover band that tackled a verse of “Ashes to Ashes.” In high school I fumbled my way through a cover of “Ziggy Stardust” at a graduation party. Even today, my wife keeps her poster of Bowie playing cello, which she bought as a teenager, in our bedroom. And every Christmas, we listen to his “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” duet with Bing Crosby. Several times.
So much of our understanding of Bowie is through whichever persona he presents in each song. He’s an alien, an astronaut, a villain and a hero. But it’s rare for us to have ever gotten a glimpse at David Jones, the man. Bowie spent very little time away from cameras or the stage, but as the public was concerned, Bowie was something more than just a man. And indeed he was. But in the last 15 years of his life, he gradually removed the veil of myth. I was lucky enough to see him live in 2002, at the Area Two festival, wherein he opened with “Life on Mars?” and made his way through a career’s worth of material in about 90 minutes. He was 55 at the time, but seemed ageless. Lithe, agile, cracking jokes about buying jackalopes for his tour bus, he seemed more human than much of his career had ever suggested, but almost superhumanly cool all the same. Eleven years later, when he released “Where Are We Now?”, he namechecked various landmarks in Berlin, where three of his most groundbreaking albums were recorded. He seemed, with a gentle and almost mournful voice, to be acknowledging for the first time that age was catching up to him.
David Bowie died on Sunday night after an 18-month battle with cancer, a battle that was kept out of public knowledge. His only tell was in his final album, Blackstar, which on close inspection turned out to be his farewell letter to the world. It’s not coincidental that the album contains a song called “Lazarus,” whose own video seemed to portend his death. And the title track even references a trip into the afterlife: “Something happened on the day he died/ his spirit rose a meter then stepped aside.” It seems only natural for Bowie, who wrote songs by cutting up lyric sheets and spoke to us through fictional figures, to announce his passing into the great beyond with an album of dark prophecies.
David Jones was a human being, and I’d like to think that he left us in peace, surrounded by his family and loved ones. But David Bowie is so much bigger than that. He’s communing with life on Mars, he’s waiting in the sky, and he’s far out in a moonage daydream.
He’ll be a hero, forever and ever.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.