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Timothy Finn: Why we thought David Bowie, a tireless reinventor, would be immortal

David Bowie appears on a giant screen with various costumes he performed in, as part of a retrospective David Bowie exhibition in Paris last year.
David Bowie appears on a giant screen with various costumes he performed in, as part of a retrospective David Bowie exhibition in Paris last year. AP

“Blackstar,” David Bowie’s 25th studio recording, was, it turns out, his valediction, a pronouncement of his own mortality.

The album was released on Jan. 8, his 69th birthday, two days before Bowie succumbed to the cancer he’d been fighting for 18 months, an illness he’d kept so private that news of his death was as shocking as it was unexpected.

In the annals of pop culture over the past 50 years, few stars were as vibrant, creative, visionary, prolific, transcendent and adventurous as David Bowie, who was born David Robert Jones in south London in 1947. Since the late 1960s, Bowie had indulged in a vast galaxy of ideas, impulses and attitudes that took music into new and often strange terrains.

He breached all stylistic borders, plumbing rock, jazz, funk, soul, disco and hip-hop. He was immune to stasis and repetition. Across the span of 25 albums, he regularly reinvented himself, often assuming alter-egos and exploring sexuality, androgyny and other themes. And, while exalting his eccentricities, he brought comfort to those feeling alienated or isolated. He brought weirdness to the mainstream and made it feel genuine and palatable. He made it OK to be who you are or who you wanted to be.

He was uncommonly multifaceted and widely beloved. News of his death prompted expressions of sorrow and mourning from the worlds of music, fashion, art, film and politics. A tweet from British Prime Minister David Cameron: “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.”

Even the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, weighed in on BBC Radio: “I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the ’70s particularly and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had. Extraordinary person.”

He was extraordinarily debonair and brimming with dignity and grace. On his birthday, I recalled on Facebook the one time I interviewed Bowie. It was in 2004, several days before his May 10 performance at Starlight Theatre: “My favorite phone interview ever. He called ahead of time, said he was lounging in his hotel room, nibbling on almonds and wondered if I’d mind starting early. He was witty, polite, friendly and gracious. And he suspended the usual 15-minute time limit. Happy birthday, David Bowie.”

That Starlight show was the day before a Metallica show at Kemper. During part of Bowie’s set, I spied some of the Metallica crew (including Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield, I believe) watching from backstage, looking like fanboys with a man crush -- like the rest of us, in other words.

Down to his final days, he pushed and extended himself. On “Blackstar,” he explored new sounds, performing with a jazz quartet. In the New York Times, critic Jon Pareles wrote: “It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.”

[Album review: David Bowie looks far beyond pop on jazz-inspired ‘Blackstar’]

It’s less cryptic today, at least lyrically. “Blackstar,” we now realize, expresses the sentiments of a man preparing to die, to speak to us from the other side. From “Lazarus,” released as a single in December: “Look up here / I’m in heaven.” And: “Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh, I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me.”

“He always did what he wanted to do,” his longtime producer, Tony Visconti, wrote on Facebook. “And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of art. He made ‘Blackstar’ for us, his parting gift.”

News of his death comes as a surprise, not only because we knew nothing of his illness but because Bowie was so uncommon and so indefatigably driven to create and reinvent himself, yet again, that he seemed immortal. He lives on in what he left behind: a trove of unique and influential music and millions of broken-hearted fans whose lives were changed by it.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

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