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Op-Ed: Best Bowie Tribute – By Bob Lefsetz

Rick Wakeman’s Tribute To David Bowie – Life On Mars

“I’d just played on what I considered to be the best song I’d ever had the privilege to work on.”

– Rick Wakeman

That’s right, the guy who was in and out of Yes, who brought them to their height with “Roundabout” and the rest of “Fragile” and then did a solo album and ultimately disappeared into obscurity. He’s back. To where he once belonged. Playing his original piano part from “Life On Mars?” on BBC 2.

You won’t listen.

Nobody does anymore.

No one’s got the time, everybody’s overwhelmed, there’s too much input, you’re buried under the suggestions from your trusted filters, and when Wakeman starts to talk at the beginning of this clip your eyes are gonna glaze over. So…

Fast forward to the fifty second mark, listen, and then go back to the spoken intro.

Not that it’s not interesting, it’s just that musicians speak through their music, it’s probably why none has truly succeeded as an actor, an actor plays a role, a musician evidences his inner life, his soul in his music, especially back then, when the hitmakers not only sang, but wrote and played.

But here you’ve got a minor figure, someone who never crosses your mind when you think of the song, and he lays his hands on the ivories and…

Bowie is dead, but his music lives on.

It’s positively staggering. That someone has that much talent. We’re so used to people faking it that to see someone demonstrate his wares on a song we know by heart, having done the original decades before and now playing the notes just as well, our minds are blown, we’re speechless.

We think of the legends as passe. Plowed under. Yet here, paying tribute to a colleague, Rick Wakeman is more alive, more human, evidences more heart, than all the Top Ten combined. Bieber can’t do that. Gomez can’t even try. Gaga would be so busy mugging, illustrating her investment, that it would overwhelm the sound, and ultimately it’s all about the sound…

And it’s GLORIOUS!’


Luther Vandross gets a writing credit, but he gets no performance credit. What exactly did he do here?

Check this out:

“Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me)”

Despite Luther being managed by Shep Gordon, who made his bones with rocker Alice Cooper, in the seventies R&B and rock rarely crossed paths, in the collections of fans, that is. You never heard soul music on AOR and vice versa. The musicians themselves cross-pollinated, especially the English, who were influenced by early R&B to begin with. All of which is an explanation for the fact that despite being completely aware of Luther Vandross, I was never aware of this track. Internet research tells me Mike Garson played it before Bowie shows in ’74, that’s how David knew it.

That’s right, they used to be musicians, artists, they lived for the music and knew so much about it.


Internet prognosticators are speculating that Bowie took his own life. Not that he was not ill, not that his condition was not terminal, but that the date and time were selected by the man himself.

Makes sense. You too can parse Tony Visconti’s words for insight.

It’s just that it was too soon after the release of “Blackstar,” too much when he was on our minds, it was completely unexpected, we’re looking for answers.

I have none.

Once again, internet research will tell you that Bowie had liver cancer, that it probably started in his lungs, that he may have had a bout before. But despite living in the information society, it’s amazing how little we can know, especially about someone’s death.

If it was suicide, it was one last, grand, artistic moment. Touché.

If it was not…

In the case of John Lennon, we could point our finger at Mark David Chapman, he was the villain, he took the Beatle from us. And George Harrison had a long cancer decline. Bowie was positively vital, at the peak of his game, and then he expired?

How do you explain that?

I can’t.

I haven’t read a single tribute, no obituary, I haven’t looked at any pictures, because I’m still digesting his absence. I haven’t fully metabolized it yet. It was a shock to the system, discovered randomly on Twitter. At first I thought it was a lighthearted joke. But then I went down my timeline and realized it was real. And then…

I didn’t feel like saying anything.

He was too young. Despite being a recluse, he was in the public eye. He committed no cultural faux pas. There was nothing to ridicule. Sure, his commercial peak may have passed, but it didn’t seem to bother him.

Then POOF!

He’s gone.

It’s akin to the “Leftovers.” Have you read that book? Where suddenly people disappear? Messes up those left behind. They abandon their jobs, they find religion, they take their own lives… You see meaning has evaporated.

And I’d say meaning has evaporated here on Earth. With everything at our fingertips we don’t know where to start. We can’t get a handle on the 400+ scripted TV shows, never mind an album. Everybody wants our attention, few deserve it. We want to belong, but not to a club that does not align with our core beliefs.

Used to be we believed in musicians. Many still do. But before the Beatles Frankie Avalon and Fabian were big stars. Fame draws flies. But then there are those who twist the game, who utilize their notoriety to comment on the condition. Isn’t that the essence of “Ziggy Stardust”?

But that was just the beginning.

And now we’re at the end.

Ever read a great book and get depressed when it’s over?

Usually I start reading slower and slower as I near the end.

But in this case, I was steaming along merrily, completely oblivious, and then a giant crater sucked up David Bowie. How do you process something like that? Especially in a world where nincompoops laud Donald Trump and crazy Cruz and Hillary is so busy telling us what she thinks we want to hear that we can’t believe a word she says.

Bowie never did this. He never pandered. Always played it his way.

Which is why we paid attention.

We never grew up and out of it. We always believed in the power of music. And we’ve had such a hard time facing the changes. The death of not only the record store, but the album. The shift to mindless crap from meaningful media. We want to go back, but not only does rust never sleep, your DNA marches inexorably forward, you can get a facelift, but your genes don’t care.

Time has changed us.

But we can’t trace time.

But we want to.


Mail from readers

Hi Bob,

Bravo on your moving, evocative last lines about David Bowie. Reminded me of the last paragraph of Gatsby "And so we move on … floating in a tin can." For a while it felt like he invented the world we lived in. He was certainly the most European of any of the UK rock stars. Who thought of Berlin as hip until he went there and gave this lost generation its theme song "Heroes." Never put on much of an accent when he sang. After I recorded my first album "Aquashow" I wanted him to produce the second so I sent him a letter via RCA. And it got to him! And the next time he was in New York he called me from the Sherry Netherlands Hotel, no assistant, no secretary, just picking up the phone and him saying "Hi, it's David Bowie." He invited me down to Electric Lady Studio for a listening party of his new album "David Live." It was during his MainMan era and the eclectic entourage was everything you might imagine. But it was my first contact with rock royalty and he was eloquent and elegant and inspiring and so knowledgeable. He asked me what kind of album I wanted to make, I said like "Hunky Dory" but with more guitars. He laughed at that. Alas, he had to go off on tour so we never had the chance to work together. Judging by the careers of those he did work with (Lou, Iggy, Ian Hunter) it probably would have changed my life.

We will not see the likes of him again for a very long time.

Best regards,
Elliott Murphy


Suicide !!! I was thinking that after seeing the "last photo" of David… The one where he's looking like William Burroughs. How do you pass two days after that pic? Wouldn't you be bedridden? Wouldn't you be so weak that you couldn't walk? He looked vibrant in that pic.

He was so special. I've worked with many artists. I spent almost a year on the road with him playing drums on the Glass Spider Tour. He really was/is a superstar. A classy guy. Charismatic, intelligent, considerate and the ultimate gentleman. He trusted all his musicians. He knew we would play for the songs and for him. Like soldiers guarding the fort. We backed him up and never let him down!

The fact that I was hearing his voice in my monitors every night was an unbelievable feeling. I actually had/have his records in my collection. I was and always will be a fan.

Did I mention he was funny? Well he was. After our first show in Brussels, back at the hotel, I got a phone call in my room. I answered "Hello," and the voice said "Hi Alan, it's David." There was no David in the crew, who can this be? So I said "David who?" He then answered, "The singer in the band, silly."

It was funny when it happened. David had never called me before and I just never expected it. He wanted to go out for a drink and wondered if I'd like to join him and one or two other band members. Ha! This became the norm about once a week.

So many stories. So many fantastic shows. David was the ultimate professional.

Can you imagine what an honor it was to play his songs?

An innovator, an alien possibly ; )

A great man. Like I've said and you said Bob, his music will live on forever.


Alan Childs


Dear Bob,

This happens all the time. Cancer is not always a drawn-out ordeal that turns you into a skeleton. I’ve seen that awful version too but it can also be stealthy and quick. My husband had stage IV lung cancer, and you would never know it. The doctors didn’t know it either. He felt unwell – aches and pains, out of breath – and it took them 5 months to find it. By then it was a terminal diagnosis – spread all over – but you would never know it to look at him.

Even 6 months into treatment he felt well, we went hiking, made plans for the future, even his oncologist thought he could last for a long time…and then it spread to his brain and he was gone in 6 weeks.

(It’s awful to speculate and none of our business but I’m putting my bet on lung cancer precisely because no one has said what kind. Lung cancer has so much stigma, as though the sufferers brought it on themselves. My husband never smoked but people always assume he did)

We might never know what happened to Bowie, but if he did get such a diagnosis 18 months ago he could either ignore The End or plan for it. And of course, he did what he did, and turned it into art. None of us know of course, but perhaps he knew it would get him eventually, and he executed this plan for that inevitable end, not knowing when it would be. His End could have been quick, or he could have aided it (but I would call that “assisted death” rather than "suicide") and I respect him immensely for directing, as much as one can, such a horrible fate.

My heartfelt condolences to his wife and children and especially his teenager daughter. I hope the world gives them space but the people who love them do not.

Our world has another hole in it.

Zoe Keating


Bob — In 1997, when my father was dying of cancer, he literally willed himself to continue living until my brother was married. He should have died the day before the nuptials, but he just kept going. Fifteen minutes after the ceremony ended, he breathed his last. I suggest that Bowie may have done the same thing. He was determined to keep living until the album was released. Once it came out, he went.

Mind over matter.

Douglas C. Weinstein