David Bowie died the same way he lived: On his own terms. He was a pop culture icon for more than 40 years, but wanted to — and managed to — keep his terminal cancer secret for 18 months.
He also unveiled a new album, “Blackstar,” on Jan. 8, his 69th birthday — only two days before a Facebook post announced his passing. His enduring creative spirit was undiminished to the end.
Labeling Bowie a “rock star” seems inadequate. He was a sophisticated, fearless, multi-dimensional artist. His work was far more daring and diverse than what usually flows from someone operating at his level of commercial success.
In his early Ziggy Stardust period, he craved, and thrived on, attention. His outlandish appearance(s) — going eyebrow-less is a surefire way to achieve an alien, otherworldly look — fed that need. It was all designed to challenge perceptions and norms while exploring themes of alienation.
The end result could be outlandish, but his inspirations and aspirations were not that different from many of his British rock star peers. His earliest show biz dream, he told more than one interviewer, was to play saxophone in Little Richard’s band. On his 1983 album “Let’s Dance,” he featured a then-unknown blues-rock guitarist from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bowie loved earthy American roots music, even as he framed it within the sleek pop of “Modern Love” and “China Girl.”
Long-ago bouts of drug-fueled decadence aside, he adhered to a refined decorum, a sly bad boy with impeccable British manners, smarts and style. His “Little Drummer Boy” duet with Bing Crosby, the oldest of old-school entertainers, was decidedly traditional and sweet. The much-viewed video reveals an obvious affection between these two men of very different generations and mindsets.
Similarly, Bowie dutifully played his assigned role during a 1980 appearance on “The Tonight Show.” Host Johnny Carson, a fan of big band jazz, didn’t quite know what to make of Bowie, who gamely smiled and hit his marks like a pro.
His preening, posturing and flamboyance couldn’t mask an unmistakable vulnerability in his voice, songs and acting. It enabled him to play a marooned alien in the “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man,” in a touring Broadway production.
But he was anything but vulnerable when he commandeered the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans on April 30, 2004. It was the last of his very few Louisiana performances. On “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars” tour in 1972, he hit the famously grungy Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas, a ticket costing a princely $4. He headlined the LSU Assembly Center in Baton Rouge in April 1978. He staged his massive Glass Spider production — underwritten by Pepsi in an early, and somewhat controversial, example of corporate tour sponsorship — at the Superdome on Oct. 6, 1987, with his school chum Peter Frampton on lead guitar.
Seventeen years later, Bowie compressed what felt like an arena-sized show into the Saenger. Ray Davies, the voice of the Kinks, and Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, both New Orleans residents at the time, were in attendance, indicative of the breadth of Bowie’s appeal.
Backed by an equally compelling band, he was charming, engaged and absolutely in command as he rocked nearly 30 songs over two-and-a-half-hours. He opened with the classic “Rebel, Rebel” followed by “New Killer Star,” from his then-current “Reality” album. That pairing served notice that this would not be a greatest hits recital. He intended to treat newer, more challenging compositions as equally worthy.
Much of his output over the past 15 years has left me cold. But that night, he made the newer songs feel as vital as the classics. The room was absolutely combustible; Bowie and the band lit the fuse. He was on fire from start to finish.
That show felt like a victory lap. It also turned out to be one of his last.
That summer while on tour in Europe, Bowie underwent an angioplasty procedure on a blocked artery. He canceled the final month of scheduled concerts and never toured again.
Instead, he largely withdrew from public life. For the past 10 years, he did not perform or grant interviews. He apparently spent time at a wooded spread outside New York City, away from the prying eyes of paparazzi. He occasionally stepped out with his wife, the supermodel Iman. Cameras sometimes caught him on the streets in the city, hidden by sunglasses and a cap, a dapper older guy trying to go about his business anonymously.
He released new music only intermittently, and with little warning. Such was the case with “Blackstar.” Much has been made of “Lazarus,” a track that includes the lyrics, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.”
Did he intend the album as his own, Bowie-esque obituary? It would be just like him to incorporate his final act into his final art.
But even as he sought to make one last artistic statement, he didn’t feel the need to make his illness public. As he once sang, “Don’t lean on me, man. You can’t afford the ticket.”
None were available to the last chapter of his life. Ultimately, even the man who sold the world wanted to keep some of it for himself.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and members of Arcade Fire will lead a memorial second-line parade in Bowie’s honor on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016. It will depart from Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter Street, at 4 p.m.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.