Space was never far from Bowie's thoughts. In a TV interview in 2000, he quipped: "Is there life on Mars? Yes, it has just landed here." He meant the Internet, which he called "an alien life form." Of course, pop culture's supreme alien was Bowie himself. The most indelible of his alter-egos was the flame-haired extraterrestrial rock star Ziggy Stardust. He played another visitor from space -- a kind of goth E.T. -- in Nicolas Roeg's cult-film classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. Even offstage, Bowie's presence was otherworldly. Nina Simone, whom he befriended in the early '70s, admiringly deemed him "not human." "David ain't from here," she said.
Bowie's early embrace of science fiction was a sign of the times. "Space Oddity" was recorded on June 20, 1969, exactly one month before the Apollo 11 moon landing. Before Bowie, pop sci-fi had been pure kitsch -- goofy novelty hits like "Flying Saucer Rock'n'Roll" and "Martian Hop." But in Bowie's work, outer space plays the same role as the crossroads in Delta blues or the New Jersey Turnpike in Bruce Springsteen's catalog. It's a place and it's a muse; it's an all-purpose metaphor that takes in existential conundrums, utopian fantasies, dystopian nightmares, parables about technology and sex and fame and rock'n'roll.
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Ziggy Stardust was an elaborate performance-art jape about the superhuman, even messianic, qualities with which audiences invest in rock stars. But Bowie didn't just place himself above the adoring crowd; he also situated himself among it. Impersonating an alien, he spoke to the alienated, to those who, by dint of sexual preference or adolescent confusion or fabulous hair and makeup and clothes, felt like they had tumbled to Earth from a distant planet. "I'm the space invader/I'll be a rock'n'rollin' bitch for you," sang Bowie. Millions heard themselves as that "you" and took his words as a pledge of solidarity, a tribal code.
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A different kind of proclamation can be heard on Bowie's new single "Lazarus": "Look up here, I'm in heaven ... I've got nothing left to lose." Here he sings not as a space invader, but as a voyager in the opposite direction, a human who has slipped the bonds of Earth and ascended to the firmament. Like other songs on the grimly beautiful Blackstar, "Lazarus" brings into focus the mystical-spiritual yearning behind Bowie's astral visions. Listen again to the words he warbles in "Space Oddity" as the doomed Major Tom exits his space capsule: "I'm stepping through the door." David Bowie has stepped through the door; the pain of his departure is both sharpened and eased by the bounty of mind-widening music he left behind. If, some day, we need to send a peace offering to our intergalactic adversaries, we could do worse than to load the Bowie discography on a flash drive, strap it to a rocket and blast it to the stars.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.