Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth….
I was dropping my son off at school when the news at the top of the hour announced David Bowie’s death.
Last year I’d considered – as a writing experiment and nothing more – writing obituaries for the living and discussing how they’d impacted me. Of course I wouldn’t be discussing them as people. That would be presumptuous. I’d never met them. Probably never even seen them in person, live. Nevermind that published obituaries are written (in many cases, pre-written with just a few details to be filled in) by people with no personal connection and not even the impersonal connection I felt.
I never wrote anything on paper, just toyed with structure and language during trips in the car. But I thought about Bowie quite a bit, and frankly there are only a handful of other really interesting entertainers alive today.
My second thought on hearing the news was … hey, this is David Fucking Bowie. AKA Davy Jones aka Ziggy Stardust aka Aladdin Sane aka The Thin White Duke aka Thomas Newton aka Jareth Goblinking and many more. A man who re-invented himself every year or two, who rarely showed his true face to the world. So obviously he’s faked his own death, and won’t it be amazing when he reveals it? But he’s probably dead, I imagine. This feels too gimmicky for the current man.
No, if David Bowie has faked his death it’s because he’s immortal and he’ll never reveal that fact. Certainly not to us.
I am left with my thoughts and the illusion of intimacy that I imagine we had.
I haven’t been this affected by a celebrity death since Jim Henson’s. I remember catching a glimpse of his lovely funeral on the nightly news and just being haunted and devastated, feeling like my childhood had died and wondering about the man who had taken pains during his last months to try and replace the sadness he knew we’d feel with joy and awe and beauty.
If you are of my age (roughly) the Muppets represent childhood, and Jim Henson’s death — coming as I left graduate school and entered the world — felt too on the nose, like time grounding my face in the sand to impress his girlfriend, not because of any particular animus towards me.
Time and Death are powerful bullies who didn’t really want to hurt me: I’m no threat to them. They bully because that’s what the universe does. Just playing to the crowd by rubbing our faces in gritty sandy reality.
I missed Bowie’s huge output in the 70s. I was too young. It was only when he reinvented himself (again) with the Plastic Pop (not to be confused with Plastic Soul) of Let’s Dance that I discovered him as a teenager. And then another shock of discovery when I realized he sang with Queen (in a song they knocked out in a day or two, I imagine). Then, another shock, I recognized the same man singing the Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth with Bing Crosby (who my parents had identified, but they had no idea who the other guy was).
Just another afternoon. Just another beautiful song knocked out.
To me, Bowie never really went away even as his fame flickered. He kept popping up in my life. Before college, he showed up in Labyrinth (working with Jim Henson, now that I think about it). And to, my surprise, this pop singer wasn’t terrible in the movie and his songs mixed pop and gospel (I’m thinking of Underground) and showed an interesting range of ideas. And he wasn’t a horrible actor, even if it was just a cheesy movie.
It was only in college that I started going back to the 70s Bowie, and it felt like he sang my every mood before I experienced them, in rapid succession. I discovered that his range of styles had always been expansive. The demo for Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (the eventual B-side of Space Oddity) included a cello and a small gospel-like section.
Bowie’s Chimerical nature included style, not just show.
During college, my life spun on a CD player to a series of Bowie’s greatest hits and deep cuts on love, loss, partying, depression, insecurity, rage and peacock strutting. He told me everything, and as far as I can tell he was right. (I’ve never been famous, so I’ll just take his word for that, since he was right on everything else). Was I projecting my emotions on songs?
Of course. Probably. Everyone does that.
But only Bowie had the right range and depth of emotions to be the screen I could project on. Other groups I loved could capture but a small part of my range.
Eventually, I’d go back and watch The Man Who Fell To Earth Is Bowie the only rock star who has starred in a Criterion Collection movie? Probably. This is also a man who apparently wrote art and painting reviews under a psuedonym (and if that’s not true I don’t want to know about it). I’d read the Sandman and say to myself, “Huh, Lucifer looks like David Bowie” and then later find out that it wasn’t a coincidence at all. Neil Gaiman had written explicit instructions that Lucifer should look like this, presumably to allow the Morningstar to bask in Bowie’s reflected glory.
Even when others tuned out, there was stilll the music. I haven’t picked up a lot of Bowie’s earlier albums, but I liked the torch-song phase of Heathen, and the later works of Reality and The Next Day. For years, when I have a long trip, I typically rotate, about 1/2 to 1/3rd Bowie, and everyone else can split the rest.
I found myself in my last trip thinking that practically every song on the Reality live album would actually work as a song that Lucifer would sing to the damned to alternately comfort and mock them at the same time. (“There is no hell; There is no shame; There is no hell, like an old hell…”).
And now he’s gone.
My informal definition of art is “Something that you can take in repeatedly, with new and different thoughts each time.” By my definition, Bowie was the greatest artist I’ve encountered, someone I’ve revisited time and again throughout my life. I’ve listened to his songs, gnashed my teeth trying to learn guitar to them, laughing at parties as his records play, listening to endless covers as other generations discover him. The lady on the news said that Space Oddity was the first music video made in space, by Chris Hadfield. And that was the only real fact she mentioned. He’s reduced to one headline.
I wasn’t even that annoyed. I don’t own David Bowie. His music wasn’t a gift to the world, we paid for it. Gladly. We paid in money and fame and I suspect that 1960s and 1970s Bowie desperately wanted those, then got jaded as he understood the depth of what he’d wished for. Then — only then, as he aged — he accepted our offerings with grace yet retained his mercenary and mercurial nature.
But he also allowed the security in his position to allow him to experiment. I was planning on buying Blackstar, even thought it’s long noodling jazz. Probably it will be terrible (Jazz is hard, people), but he has earned enough goodwill and has succeeded — or at least failed in new ways –at so many things that I think the risk is worth it.
Today David Bowie is gone, and I find myself thinking of the joyful triumphant ending to Rock and Roll Suicide, the song whose opening line graces this post.
Oh no love! you’re not aloneYou’re watching yourself but you’re too unfairYou got your head all tangled up but if i could onlyMake you careOh no love! you’re not aloneNo matter what or who you’ve beenNo matter when or where you’ve seenAll the knives seem to lacerate your brainI’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the painYou’re not alone!
A song I’ve consoled myself with for years, a simple ballad that I was shocked to learn had way too many obscure chords for me to play (aren’t rock songs supposed to have only 4 chords?). The closing song to Ziggy Stardust, and also the last song on Sound and Vision (where they have the live version from his final Ziggy Stardust show), a song I’ve found growing on my through the years.
David Bowie is gone, and I feel sad, but not alone.
Update — I wrote this early this morning, prior to reading much about it, but now it seems clear that Bowie did intend Blackstar as his final album and knew death was imminent, which makes me think back to Jim Henson even more….