RIP, David Bowie
SB: On Sunday, I read that David Bowie had died just as we were going to bed. I sat stunned for a while, unable to believe it. Friday had been his 69th birthday, and I'd spent all day listening to his new album - Blackstar - and a local radio station, KEXP, that had dedicated the day to him in the form of Intergalactic Bowie Day. Just two short days ago.
It took me a long time to fall asleep, and then I dreamt all night of spending wonderful, meaningful, yet super weird time with people I loved right before they died. And then I got in the car this morning and "Lazarus" from the new album came on, and I started to cry before I could stop myself.
I'm thrown off guard about how much this is getting to me. I love David Bowie - I've been listening to him my whole life and I've always loved him - but I don't know him. How can I feel such loss? I think it must be that Bowie has always been in my life. He's been part of my life's soundtrack. He's shaped how I think about music, about art, about fashion, about gender, about beauty... he's been hugely influential to the person I've become, and I expected to have more time. I expected him to keep influencing.
And he will, of course. He's left us with 25 brilliant albums (26 if you count Tin Machine). He's left us with films and art and a changed world... but he's left us. And my heart is surprisingly broken.
It's interesting. Everyone seems to be baffled by Bowie's mortality, but for such different reasons. He was such an ever-present figure in my life. I remember as a bitty kid singing along to songs that I didn't quite understand, but reveling in his voice and, frankly, admiring his makeup and style choices. (Between Bowie, Boy George, Grace Jones and Cyndi Lauper, my fashion icons were bold and gender-bending.) I loved that he changed his look all the time, that he was part human, part fantasy.
As a kid, I was generally obsessed with all things fantasy. Unicorns, fairies, stories of celestial adventures and magic lit my little flame. David Bowie was fantasy incarnate. He looked like a character out of scifi/fantasy story. And then he went and starred in Labyrinth. (More on that next week!) And my love for Bowie was cemented. As the years went on and he continued to create more and more music and star in strange and wonderful films and show up as himself - always himself, even as a character - he was just always there. His music always brought me comfort; his image always made me smile. He's been like a lifelong friend, as goofy as that sounds.
And so here I find myself, mourning a person I never knew. Mourning a body of work that now has an end point. Mourning the fact that my kids won't be able to discover the living David Bowie. That they will always speak about Bowie in the past tense. That I have to speak about him now in the past tense. That fact alone breaks my heart.
At the end of November, I discovered Blackstar was coming out when I saw the stunning video for the title track, and I started preparing myself for what I was sure would be his preeminent album. This song alone comprised elements of so many genres; somehow, so many parts of his life and his work were here. Watching the video and listening to his lyrics, it was clear he was grappling with mortality, which makes sense for a man in his late 60's. What I didn’t know was that he was saying goodbye.
I feel so honored that he left us this opus to listen to. That although he (rightly) kept his illness quiet, he used his final months to create this beautiful album and allowed us to witness his struggle with death, his final curtain call. And part of me wonders how I missed it in the first place. Listening to the album now, just days later after the first time I listened to it, it seems so clear that he was working through the complex emotions of a terminal disease. That he was sending himself off. That he was leaving this for us before he left.
And he did leave this for us. He left us so much. For that, I am so profoundly grateful. I’m grateful to have grown up on Bowie, to know his body of work, to feel like he was a part of my life. And I’m grateful that I’ll be able to listen to his voice and share it with my kids for the rest of our lives.
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CML: I am right there with you, Shannon, in feeling deeply sad about David Bowie’s passing, and I feel like a complete fraud.
I didn't really discover David Bowie until this time last year and, given his 25 albums' worth of art, only owning his "Best Of" album as I do now makes me the dust on the dandruff falling from a Bowie neophyte's shoulder. At this point, I know nothing other than that one compilation album has been on repeat in my house for about a year. (Yes, my daughters do yell "WHAM BAM, THANK YOU MA'AM" at inopportune moments. "Pepperjack" City, as they call it, is their favorite song. "Rebel Rebel" is a close second.)
When I heard that his new album came out this week, I was excited to get the opportunity to dive into a new (to me) artist who gracefully rode the timeline smoothly from groundbreaking past through to present relevance. I imagined going to the Seattle stop of the tour that would inevitably support the new album, buying and immersing myself in all the old albums, and snagging whatever biographies I could from the library. 2016, I resolved (quietly, so that no one would laugh at the intensity and intentionality of my obsession), would be the Year of Bowie. But I didn't think that it would be because it was Bowie's last year.
And that is because, like a child views a parent, I just assumed that because he'd always been there that he'd always be there. I know that this is melodramatic, but I won't let that stop me: Maybe this is what it's like to grow up and face both the preceding generation's mortality and our own. Maybe I took Bowie for granted, as one takes one's parents for granted. Maybe I'm so sad not only because of the genius of his work and how generously and bravely he shared himself and his art with the world. It just might have something to do with aging, mortality, his place in that cycle, and (gasp!) my place in that cycle.
After all, I was sad when Joe Strummer died in 2002 at age 50, but I also had the comfort of indignation at how young he died, as well as the safety of my own youth. That is absent in the case of Bowie. He was 69 - not much older than my parents. I am 37 - not much younger than he was. I think my pain at his death comes from both the loss of a legend himself, but also at the fuller experience of loss that one experiences as an adult closer to death. I'm sadder about Bowie's passing than I was about Kurt Cobain's when I was 15, even though I was a grungy teenager living in Western Washington at the time. Being 22 years nearer my own end (I can't believe it's been 22 years since Kurt died AND since I was 15!) makes witnessing others' ends more profound.
Grander and more meaningful than my temporal perspective of his passing (Remember how I used to have a blog called Me Show? There may be some narcissism at play above that I’m not ready to fully confront.), is what Bowie meant to the world. Because of Bowie, we had androgyny and gender play and gayness and queerness that was out, open, celebrated, performed, glittered, and bedazzled. He made identity experimentation and gender resistance an artistic performance on par with his music and fashion, which opened up space within our culture for others to experiment, resist, and perform as they chose. Sara Benincasa puts it best in her now viral piece for Medium “Thank You, David Bowie, from the Weird Kids”:
“I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie — either because their parents procreated to his music or because (and this is I believe the more important group) he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist. He was the crown prince(ss) of the unusual. He was so marvelously, spectacularly weird, and he gave so many oddballs, including this one, hope.”
And perhaps that is what I’m missing when I say that I miss an artist whose work I was only cursorily acquainted with. It is the loss of his trailblazing originality and how it was always there that hurts so much. Members of my generation are so lucky to have grown up always with Bowie and his gender-bending contemporaries and followers who granted us the freedom to express our identities with more fluidity and grace through their own courageous examples. He helped free us to be who we are, and, even better, he helped us imagine ourselves as bigger, brighter, bolder, and, yes, weirder than we could have dream of on our own. And, as Caitlin Moran's advice from her essay "10 Things Every Girl Should Know," shows, he did all of that without a David Bowie of his own to guide him.
And that's why he was a hero, and that's why we'll miss him and his influence so much. Because he knew that we could be heroes, too, and his work helped make that possible.
Thanks, David Bowie. For your art, for your courage, and for ourselves.