The day after Elvis Presley died, I went to the record store. I’m not sure why. I had plenty of his music. But something, with his death, made me want to own more.
I’ll never forget what I saw. Records in those days were sorted by white dividers, with the artist’s name and album printed on top. Bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones — with many albums to their credit — might have several rows worth of product to flip through.
I went to the P’s, where everyone from Patti Page to Procol Harum was well represented. But the Presley stock was gone. Nothing but white dividers, one after the other.
Blackstar already topped the British and Australian charts. And at one point last week, the deceased Bowie had four albums in the iTunes top 10, including “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” which came out 44 years ago!
Music life after death
What is it about death and music? The year Michael Jackson died, he sold more records than any living artist. James Brown, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain, all saw huge jumps in record sales after they took their last breaths.
Bowie’s posthumous success must be bittersweet for those in his circle. For much of his career he danced on the fringes of popular music, pushing the envelope, confounding critics and sometimes fans. He was the androgynous Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, the tall, angular ringleader of electronic experimentation and the loud rocker screaming “Jean Genie” and “Suffragette City.” He pushed punk rock and glam rock and dabbled in film and philosophy and poetry and even, at one point, being a mime, yet his biggest selling record was a song called, simply, “Let’s Dance.”
Great now means always great
I recently wrote a book about a fictional guitarist named Frankie Presto, who dies during his final concert. At his funeral, the spirit of Music comes to take back all the talent it once gave him and sprinkle it on newborn souls. I wrote that because I think that’s what happens when great artists pass away. Their music spreads. And we lap it up like hungry dogs, perhaps because we realize there won’t be any more coming.
People are now nodding their heads to Bowie’s “Changes” or “Young Americans,” saying how great they are. But if they are great now, they were always great. It shouldn’t take death to get them in front of us. Likewise, just because an artist dies, it’s no reason to mine the vaults for outtakes, or forgotten tracks deliberately not used on albums. To me, that’s like going into a guy’s closet, taking all the clothes he never wore, then saying, “Look, this is how he dressed!”
Historically, certain artists and composers, going back to Mahler and Bach, are better known after they died than when they lived. So we can’t be surprised even by a continued surge of Bowie-mania. It helped that his album was coincidentally released just days before his passing. It was going to attract attention anyhow.
But just as I rushed to the store only after Elvis had died, something ignites when we realize a body of work is complete because the body itself has given out.
Bowie, who once wrote the lyrics “Fame — what you get is no tomorrow” understood that attention is fleeting. Ironically, when it comes to the actual music, you sometimes get more tomorrows than todays.