Put me on to David Bowie….That Herculean request has now been seared into my consciousness. This is what happens when fellow scribes, friends, and family are well aware that you are are an unmitigated Bowie STAN. Indeed, since it was announced that Bowie had died at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer on Sunday night, it seems like the entire social media landscape is in a Thin White Duke frenzy. And for good reason.
Bowie was the ultimate rock star’s rock star; a gender bending, mysterious spirit so restless in his artistic pursuits that he routinely kept critics and fans confounded. And he kept on shocking until the end. Bowie’s final studio album, the critically praised Blackstar, is a stoic, jazz-tinged excursion that bravely dissects human mortality. He was reportedly on his deathbed while finishing up the album. How gangsta is that?
So how do you start your Bowie 101 journey? Newbies will no doubt go straight to the classic rock portion of his immense four-decade catalogue. But rather than begin with such great populist standards as “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” and “Heroes,” you will get cool points from hardcore Bowie heads if you circle right to the funk. In fact, that’s what separates Bowie from his G.O.A.T. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame peers.
As respected music scribe and author Nelson George rightfully pointed out in the pop chameleon’s illuminating 2014 documentary Five Years, Bowie trumped the likes of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and Beatles legend Paul McCartney in his innate sponging of black music. Sure, Mick mastered the blues and Paul Mac could break musical bread with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and hold his own. But neither could pop up on a Soul Train stage, fashionably coked out and effortless, lip-syncing the stripped down funk of his first no. 1 American hit “Fame” as if it were an afterthought.
The offbeat Bowie never tried to prove he was down by employing church-informed vocal runs. He didn’t have the luxury of sounding “black” like Teena Marie or Justin Timberlake. He wasn’t as naturally gifted as George Michael, Amy Winehouse or Adele. And dancing? Forget about it. Bowie moved like he was wearing two bowling balls for shoes.
So why did we all still believe the deliberate musical chameleon—who rose to stardom in the early ‘70s as cryptic, hedonistic space rock god Ziggy Stardust nearly two decades into his career—when he teamed up with underrated Chic producer Nile Rogers for his 1983 dance floor burner “Let’s Dance”? Because Bowie understood that first and foremost, black music was cool. Hell, Bowie was cool. While his white rock contemporaries were all too careful to not rock the boat when MTV refused to play black artists during the early ‘80s, Bowie wasn’t having it.
“Why are there practically no blacks on the network,” he grilled MTV veejay Mark Goodman during a 1982 press junket. When Goodman responded, “We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest,” Bowie turned up the heat. “Don’t say, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s them.’ Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair… to make the media more integrated?”
The following joints are 10 David Bowie tracks that prove underneath all his self-deprecating “plastic” descriptions of his forays into rhythm and blues, Iman’s quirky, adventurous other half was a true soul man. RIP, Blackstar Man.
“The Jean Genie” (1972)
The same dude that started his career out as a mousey acoustic guitar strumming-folkie showed early on that he could work the blues like a $5 Govt. Mule. The swaggering “The Jean Genie” was recorded during Bowie’s androgynous Ziggy period. “He says he's a beautician and sells you nutrition/And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear…” he surreally flips. I’ll take it.
How ridiculously funky was Bowie’s first across-the-board smash co-penned by ex-Beatles John Lennon and sublime guitarist and riff-master Carlos Alomar? The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, lifted its signature groove for his single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).”
“Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
Major Tom returns…and this time he’s a junkie. Bowie was already 10 steps ahead of everyone not named Prince in the ‘80s with this synth-heavy mash-up
“Young Americans” (1975)
When you listen to the breezy “Young Americans,” just sit back and appreciate the fact that you are not only hearing the soaring background vocals of future rhythm and blues deity Luther Vandross, but you are also taking in the late soul singer’s genius vocal arrangements. Peep him in the video.
Bowie got turned on by the grooves of Philadelphia soul songwriters and producers Thom Bell, Gamble & Huff and McFadden and Whitehead. So much so that he decided to shape an entire album around the genre, knocking this ethereal slow jam out the park.
This sneering indictment of the style police still sounds like it could get major run on today’s pop-or-bust radio playlist. Except for the fact that it’s way too incendiary to be a Maroon 5 single.
The introduction of yet another Bowie reinvention: The Thin White Duke. Clocking in at over six minutes, “Stay” was as funky as it was art-rock.
“Modern Love” (1983)
If by chance you were a child of the ‘80s, this joint most likely found a place on your cassette mixtape. Even super mainstream, MTV-stamped, suit-rocking Bowie was triller than your favorite underground hero. That’s Nile Rodgers (Duran Duran, Madonna, Daft Punk) at the studio controls.
“Black Tie White Noise” (1993)
Inspired by the volatile 1992 Los Angeles riots following the shocking Rodney King verdict, Bowie recruited New Jack Swing star Al B. Sure! to duet on this politically charged statement. It’s an unlikely mix that actually works.
“Girl Loves Me” (2016)
David Bowie was so theatrical, so eye-winking and calculating that it would not at have all been surprising if his death was yet another performance art ruse. Indeed, he may be in on the joke. “Where the f**k did Monday go?” Bowie trips over the strutting, slang-formed Clockwork Orange inspired track. The best compliment you can pay to “Girl Loves Me?” It sounds like any of hip hop’s leading players could go totally in on this track. Get Kendrick Lamar on the phone for the remix. Right now.
(Photo: Jack Kay/Express/Getty Images)