At a bar, once, someone asked what human I’d pick to prove at an intergalactic trial that our species was worth saving.
My choice died Sunday night at age 69.
David Bowie entered our culture as a tin-can Starman, and in his last days, he willed himself into Lazarus, making immortal art out of cancer and death as boldly as, for decades, he made it out of identity. The grief at his passing is damn near universal — as in, it’s gutted everyone you know, and it’s not hard to imagine it gutting beings of light and transcendence eavesdropping in from several galaxies over.
Today, the fact of Bowie’s greatness is a cosmic given. But here’s a puzzler for you: In the 43 (or 44?) years since Robert Christgau invented it, the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll has always ranked Bowie as something of an also-ran as an album artist. Bowie’s highest P&J showing: Station to Station‘s No. 13 finish in 1976, behind Jackson Browne, Blue Öyster Cult, and the Rod Stewart record with “Tonight’s the Night” on it. No fool, Christgau slotted Station to Station, Bowie’s still-vital best, at No. 4 on his personal Top 10.
The next highest placing of Bowie’s classic era? Hunky Dory‘s No. 18 in 1971, far behind Imagine and The Concert for Bangladesh, high-serious long-players that sound like the death of the Sixties. Hunky Dory‘s “Song for Bob Dylan” found something new flowering from the decade’s corpse, and the sleek glam aria “Life on Mars” sounds like the birth of the future, pop for 1977, 1984, 2001, and the listening pleasure of whatever we all evolve into.
Less surprising: the weak No. 19 rankings for Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance, in 1980 and 1983. More surprising: the voters’ relative disinterest in Bowie and Brian Eno’s epochal Berlin trilogy. “Heroes” topped out at No. 21 in 1977, behind Cheap Trick and again-with-the– Jackson Browne; still, that was well ahead of Low, from the same year, which didn’t make the final poll at all. (Only the Top 30 albums made print.) Lodger petered out at No. 31 in 1979, and after 1983 Bowie only ranked once for new work, with 2013’s The Next Day, which landed at a respectable No. 15. (Pazz & Jop sat out 1972 and 1973, so Ziggy Stardust never got a shot. Diamond Dogs, meanwhile, failed to place in 1974.)
The key to Bowie’s legend has always been that nobody else can keep up with him. In the Seventies, did Bowie’s restlessness and catholic plasticity outpace the hearts and minds of a new rock-critic establishment in thrall to Jackson Browne? The traveling “David Bowie Is” exhibition and its accompanying documentary pushed hard on the idea that Bowie’s musical legacy is no more important than his legacy of iconography: his fashion, theatricality, and public pretzeling of sexuality, all things that had little to do with the rock ‘n’ roll ethos of the pre-punk Seventies. In Pazz & Jop, Bowie only triumphed when the artist came before the album, when that catholicity became the point: Sound + Vision, an ambitious career-survey box set, ranked as 1989’s second best reissue, behind a Muddy Waters collection.
Both Waters and Bowie are eternal, but not for any particular record, because no record can hold all that each was.