David Bowie: Master of Sound and Vision

The musician, who died Sunday at age 69, donned and shed personas and music styles as he forged a legacy as pop culture’s premiere source of sound and vision.

The David Bowie box collection issued in 1989, in the early CD years and at the height of the MTV era, came stamped with a simple, yet perfect name: "Sound + Vision."

Sure, the title referred to the iconic, always-evolving music and images Bowie produced during the first two decades of his career. But "Vision," which got second billing, packed a double meaning – offering a humble-brag from an artist invariably able to see the possibilities of melding different popular culture aspects, from fashion to theater to pure rock-and-roll, into a powerful package that spoke to countless millions.

Sound plus vision added up to the creative rocket fuel that propelled David Bowie, a tireless entertainment adventurer and imaginative wanderer who died of cancer Sunday at age 69 – ending a multimedia musical odyssey that spanned earth and space, along with spirit, heart and mind.

The most obvious constant of David Bowie's run was, of course, as he put it in song, the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes he went through as he donned and shed personas and music styles. The journey he invited fans to join with the takeoff of Major Tom in 1969, just days before the Moon Landing, included stops ranging from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to suave pop emcee of "Let's Dance" to the hard-rocking front man of Tin Machine to his jazz-and-electropop-infused latest album, "Blackstar," released on his final birthday, two days before his death.

The other, perhaps more important constant, was stellar, versatile musicianship. At his best, Bowie trafficked in irresistible pop hooks ("Starman"), soaring epics ("Space Oddity") and straight out rock ("Suffragette City") – usually reaching at least two of the three and sometimes hitting the trifecta ("Changes").

His talent extended to his prowess as a lyrical storyteller and creator of characters who instinctively tapped in the shared feeling of alienation among the generation emerging from the 1960s. He transformed youthful angst and isolation into art - not just railing against authority, but giving voice and insight to the conflicting feelings inherent in the quest for self-discovery.

The morphing of the son of post-World War II Britain into sometimes androgynous and other-worldly identities both built and transcended the Glam Rock movement – providing another reflection of youth that forced us to turn and face the strange.

Bowie proved a smart showman, who always gave fans and detractors alike something to talk about. He wasn't about moving onto to the next thing for the publicity as much as for the exploration, though. He made new cross-connections in culture as he bounded from film ("The Man Who Fell to Earth") to stage ("The Elephant Man") to increasingly elaborate concert spectacles (the "Glass Spider" tour) to musical theater (the current Off-Broadway production "Lazarus").

Bowie emerged as the rare chameleon comfortable enough in his own skin to collaborate with a wide range of artists – among them Philip Glass, John Lennon and Bing Crosby. Yet, as those of us lucky enough to have seen him in concert can attest, David Bowie wielded a force all his own – looking down at us from above even as he forged an intimate bond with his audience.

Bowie, whose stirring rendition of "Heroes" during the post-9/11 "The Concert for New York City" stands as perhaps his last great, live mass-public moment, largely stopped performing after a reported heart attack in 2004. But he never stopped creating as he grew into an elder statesman of downtown cool in his final years, which yielded the elegiac 2013 album, "The Next Day," complete with haunting and hauntingly beautiful videos. The same could be said for the promo short released on YouTube last week for a new song, "Lazarus," in which a blindfolded, haggard, white-clad Bowie struggles to rise from the bed that's his prison. "Look up here," he sings. "I'm in heaven."

To the end, even as he battled the cancer that would take his life, Bowie helped us see music, fashion and performance in new forms as he always looked ahead. Or to paraphrase "Space Oddity," thanks to David Bowie, pop's premiere source of sound and vision, the stars look very different today. 

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.
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