Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Random Thoughts on David Bowie

Like so many people I know, I was deeply saddened but not surprised by the announcement of David Bowie's death on January 11.  The rumors of ill-health had been circulating for years and the clues he left on his latest album Blackstar (which I just purchased two  days earlier) and its accompanying videos are too strong to ignore.  It was stunning to see the reaction that so many people had.  We all felt a profound personal connection to Bowie.  Rather than writing some fanish nonsense about my favorite David Bowie records (and there are many) I wanted to try to figure out something to post which is relevant to this music and law blog. It’s kind of disjointed, but there’s a point.

            I could write about Bowie as a highly creative business person – a theme Billboard picked up in its tribute this week.  The article written by Robert Levine and Ed Christman focused on many of Bowie's savvy moves – from maintaining ownership of his masters from the time he signed with his RCA deal (he was also able to acquire the two Mercury albums if I remember correctly) to the massive worldwide deal he signed with EMI,  to his groundbreaking arrangement with Rykodisc which set the standard for catalog reissues.

            One could write a textbook on the concept of Bowie Bonds, the venture through which Bowie and David Pullman figured out a way to securitize his future royalties.  Although definitely risky and not for the financially faint of heart, the deal was obviously successful and now seems pioneering. And although  Bowie was not the first contemporary artist to start his own label, if you read his interviews from around 2002, it is clear that he was one of the first artists to see the eventual decline of the major label system and the deterioration of copyright.

            Finally, I loved the fact that David Bowie created his own internet company in 1998 which allowed fans to obtain their own email address at "bowie.net". He saw the possibilities of using the internet to connect with fans and did so in an entertaining way.  Of course all of this would be mildly interesting if the music was not so compelling.

            On a different spectrum,  I have been oddly moved by the widely disseminated "thank you" letter  to  Bowie written by British palliative care physician Dr. Mark Taubert, who was obviously a fan.   Taubert uses Bowie's death and life as a way to talk about the necessity of making end of life decisions in advance. It is clear that Bowie planned his final moves very carefully and very thoughtfully.  It’s really kind of brilliant.  In one section of his letter Dt. Taubert writes:

Thank you for Lazarus and Blackstar. I am a palliative care doctor, and what you have done in the time surrounding your death has had a profound effect on me and many people I work with. Your album is strewn with references, hints and allusions. As always, you don’t make interpretation all that easy, but perhaps that isn’t the point. I have often heard how meticulous you were in your life. For me, the fact that your gentle death at home coincided so closely with the release of your album, with its good-bye message, in my mind is unlikely to be coincidence. All of this was carefully planned, to become a work of death art. The video of Lazarus is very deep and many of the scenes will mean different things to us all; for me it is about dealing with the past when you are faced with inevitable death.


            In my estate planning work, I often have a hard time convincing people of the need to have durable powers of attorney for healthcare as well as living wills or advance directives.  Some people won’t even sign simple wills. Who wants to think about this unpleasant stuff?  The  way Bowie set out his end-of-life plan as carefully as any other piece of work gives me a new perspective and may make it easier to discuss this with my clients.  I highly recommend reading this letter.

            Finally, when I think of David Bowie’s career,  I am often drawn to a great book called David Bowie:  Any Day Now:  The London Years 1947-1974 by Kevin Cann.  This book, is essentially an obsessively researched chronology of Bowie's climb to fame through his succession of ill‑starred bands, questionable record deals, crummy gigs, name changes  and silly detours.  Casual fans may not be aware of the fact that Bowie had a number of non-hits on several labels before hitting with “Space Oddity” in 1969. However the end result of the book is that one realizes that this guy worked his ass off.  The real key to David Bowie's success was that he worked unrelentingly on his career.  When he began to really break through with Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, he put his foot on the gas and did not let up You also see this when you look at the early years of bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – besides raw talent and creativity they all worked hard to achieve and maintain success . This   is abundantly clear in Bowie's case and its  why he released something like 27 new albums (not including live albums) during the course  of his career while doing significant touring and appearing in countless films, on Broadway, etc.  We even learned in recent weeks that he planned compilation albums to be released in the future. This should be a lesson for all contemporary artists. Hell, it should be a lesson for all of us.

            Ok. I’m going to go listen to Station to Station.


Randy Leago said...

I love it when people bring up the sheer amount of WORK these guys put in. Not big on Stones lore, but I've read enough to know about the Beatles' and Bowie's heroic work ethic!! Might throw the Who in there as well.

Trip Aldredge said...

Totally Agree.