When David Bowie left us on January 10, 2016, we immediately started seeing the just-released Blackstar, which turned out to be his final album, as a farewell. But then, if we looked back across his entire career — a span of more than half a century — we saw that he had been delivering farewells the whole time. Throughout much of that career, Bowie’s observers have reflexively compared him to a chameleon, so often and so dramatically did he seem to revise his performative identity to suit the zeitgeist (if not to shape the zeitgeist). But periodic creative rebirth entails periodic creative death, and as the Polyphonic video essay above shows us, no rock star could die as creatively as Bowie.
The video concentrates on two of Bowie’s most famous farewells, in particular: his last, on Blackstar and the musical Lazarus, and his first, delivered onstage 43 years earlier in his last performance in the character of Ziggy Stardust. “Not only is it the last show of the tour,” he announced to 3,500 screaming fans at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, “but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”
There followed a closing performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song described by the video’s narrator as “Ziggy Stardust’s final moments, washed up and exhausted from life as a rock star.” Though only 26 years old at the time, Bowie had already released six studio albums and experienced more than enough to reflect eloquently in song on “a life well lived.”
But then, if the phenomenon of David Bowie teaches us anything, it teaches us how a life can be composed of various discrete lifetimes. Bowie understood that, as did the other artists whose work he referenced in his farewells: names cited in this video’s analysis include Jacques Brel, Charles Bukowski, and the Spanish poet Manuel Machado. And as any fan knows, Bowie was also adept at referencing his own work, a tendency he kept up until the end as in, for example, the reappearance of his mid-70s character (and subject of a previous Polyphonic study) the Thin White Duke in the “Lazarus” music video. In that work he also left plenty of material to not just inspire subsequent generations of creators, but to send them back to the realms of culture that inspired him. We may have heard David Bowie’s final farewell, but in our own lifetimes we surely won’t hear the end of his influence.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.