How David Bowie Delivered His Two Most Famous Farewells: As Ziggy Stardust in 1973, and at the End of His Life in 2016

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie Sings ‘I Got You Babe’ with Mar­i­anne Faith­full in His Very Last Per­for­mance As Zig­gy Star­dust (1973)

David Bowie Sings “Changes” in His Last Live Per­for­mance, 2006

The Thin White Duke: A Close Study of David Bowie’s Dark­est Char­ac­ter

How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

David Bowie Offers Advice for Aspir­ing Artists: “Go a Lit­tle Out of Your Depth,” “Nev­er Ful­fill Oth­er People’s Expec­ta­tions”

Dave: The Best Trib­ute to David Bowie That You’re Going to See

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.

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  • John Crye says:

    The striped out­fit Bowie wears in the “Lazarus” video is one of Newton’s out­fits from “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” not the Thin White Duke, as not­ed in the video.

  • Cindy says:

    Bowie was a True Orig­i­nal. Way ahead of his time.
    His artistry will live on as fresh and inspired as the day he per­formed it. “A life well lived.”

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