He pretended to invent a character, then lied about a nervous breakdown to hide his dependence on cocaine. He disappeared for a time, finally found by his friend Brian Eno nodding in a Berlin shooting gallery surrounded by other heroin addicts; the resulting Berlin sessions were anything other than brilliant as Bowie spent much of the time detoxing from heroin. He screwed over session musicians from Rick Wakeman to Stevie Ray Vaughan, refusing to credit their work either on album sleeves or in interviews. In a cocaine-fueled interview with Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe, he expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, calling him the first rock star.
A dilettante both musically and personally, he played with androgyny, was coquettish about his sexuality, and was constantly changing public personas, expressing boredom with affectation. His music, much like his personas, was constantly in flux, usually following on one trend or another, whether borrowing heavily from the theatrical British tradition in rock (Crazy World Of Arthur Brown; The Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper phase), Roxy Music’s early blending of synthesizer-minimalism (his work with Brian Eno) or bringing a heavier guitar sound (using Stevie Ray Vaughan and Peter Frampton as session and sidemen), each came after others had all ready made these moves. In his early years, he would roll around on stage, mime oral sex with his guitarist Mick Ronson, and refuse to allow himself to be seen or photographed in public in order to increase his mystique. None of it was serious, one was never quite sure how calculated it all was or whether, like Oscar Wilde, Bowie really was a superficial man offering the world a variety of faces for no other reason than to keep others interested in his person and his artistic output.
He could also be a kind and generous friend. In the mid-1970’s, he promoted the career of former Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, even landing both of them an appearance on the Dinah Shore daytime talk show, during which Iggy and Dinah bonded over a shared enjoyment of the rhythm of industrial machinery. Later, Bowie would take Iggy’s song “China Girl” and turn it in to a pop hit. When he hired Peter Frampton both to record and tour with him in the late-1980’s, he was offering a down-on-his-luck friend an opportunity, and would praise Frampton’s ability in every interview.
It’s usually considered bad form to speak ill of the recently departed. I don’t know if I’ve spoken ill of David Bowie. I have, however, tried to be honest, both about his life and music, as well as my feelings about them. I was never a big fan, finding much of his public persona an affected pose. There were some things he did that were brilliant, especially his duet with Freddie Mercury on Queen’s “Under Pressure” is perhaps his best single performance. I know he was an icon for many, and that his music will be played for decades to come. Perhaps that, more than his personal limitations and foibles, is what is most important. Regardless of how you feel about him or the various music he helped create, David Bowie’s art will live long after we are all gone. What better legacy could anyone have?