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Richie Unterberger: Looking Back at Bowie

In Culture, Music
SHAPESHIFTER: Local rock & roll writer Richie Unterberger will discuss the work and legacy of David Bowie.

SHAPESHIFTER: Local rock & roll writer Richie Unterberger will discuss the work and legacy of David Bowie.

If anyone could have dodged death, it might’ve been David Bowie. The shape-shifting superstar carried himself like a savant ambassador from a far groovier galaxy. His conventional passing is almost more shocking than if he had ascended skyward via tractor beam. But now that he’s gone, fans crave a summation of his impact. And on Friday at the Bascom Avenue Public Library, veteran rock & roll writer Richie Unterberger will deconstruct the peak of Bowie’s long, dense career.

As a music writer, Unterberger says he is the most interested in individuals and groups that he can spend an entire evening discussing. “A lot of artists change in unexpected ways—The Beatles, The Stones, Miles Davis. But David Bowie in the ’70s was perhaps the least predictable.”

Unterberger plans to trace Bowie’s development from his breakout late-’60s hit, “Space Oddity,” to his early-’80s dance track, “Let’s Dance.” Unterberger has written books on artists like The Beatles, The Who and The Velvet Underground. His presentations often include rare video clips and trivia nuggets, like how “Space Oddity” partially owes its success to the BBC, which used the song as a musical motif for stories on the space race—an ironic choice considering Major Tom’s fate

Unterberger will focus mostly on Bowie’s bouncing from a hippie singer-songwriter; to the glam rock megastar Ziggy Stardust; to the druggy, Aryan, “plastic soul-playing” Thin White Duke; to an androgynous pop icon. Unterberger, who lives in San Francisco, says Bowie’s durability was in large part a product of his versatility.

“I think his biggest legacy will be his experimentation,” he says. “He did it with really memorable songs that you can hum. It’s amazing how many songs are widely known of his that people can sing along really easily, and from very different eras.”

Some of Bowie’s harsher critics dismissed his many characters as a gimmick—complaining that they never knew who Bowie really was. But Unterberger sees it differently. Bowie’s genre-hopping and chameleonic image eventually comprised a singular persona: a man that needed multiple masks to fully express himself.

“As soon as he became known for a certain persona he moved on to something else,” he says. “But it’s not just sides of his character. He wanted to explore a bunch of different types of music. I don’t think he was like [his characters] in real-life. But it doesn’t really matter, because the music is real interesting.”

David Bowie Presentation
Sep 16, 6pm, Free
San Jose Public Library, Bascom Ave

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