“Where the fuck did Monday go?”
David Bowie is actually dead. It feels strange to say this. More than any other artist on the planet, Bowie always seemed to move beyond mere mortals. To the world, he was larger than life. His work was timeless, always a step ahead and off to the side from everyone else. Even his most popular songs felt beamed in from another place, with a unique sensibility that could come from no one else. He is universally beloved by entire generations, despite remaining as weird as a man can be.
Infinitely more important to me, however, is the space he occupied in my life. David Bowie is the one and only artist to have been there all along. I mean this in the most literal sense.
He starred in one of the first films I can remember watching, Jim Henson’s dark fantasia Labyrinth. Despite playing the villain, he was a magnetic attraction. Enigmatic, beautiful, always a touch removed from the teenage heroine and the viewer alike, he was the spectral vehicle and its destination in one. As the Goblin King, he invited my young mind on a journey with the promise of adventure, tinged with a little fear and weighted by potential loss. There were high stakes for reaching out to take his hand, but the rewards unfolded past the horizon. I was smitten before I knew it.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, past the peak of his commercial popularity, I swam in the echoes of David Bowie’s legacy. He was so far ahead of the game that I never quite caught up. My earliest radio memories were filled with older icons like Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, and of course, Bowie. I would bicycle around my forested neighborhood singing Pretty Woman, I get Around, and The Man Who Sold The World. I had no grasp on time, never differentiating between oldies and current hits. The music simply was what it was, the soundtrack to my childhood, the intangible spirit in the air.
By the time of my early teens, I’d long been very particular about my musical choices. One of the first CDs I ever owned was Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York, a live set containing some of the best renditions of the band’s original material as well as harrowing covers of their own heroes’ work. A soaring take on The Man Who Sold The World was my very favorite track, teasing out the apocalyptic emotion of the song and standing as one of the strongest vocal performances of Kurt Cobain’s career. The heartfelt inspiration was obvious and electric, as Cobain shifted his sound just enough to nod at Bowie’s vocal tics without verging into pure imitation. Listening even now, I can sense the depth of love one great artist felt for another. It remains one of the only truly worthy covers of Bowie’s work.
Through the 90s, my favorite band was The Smashing Pumpkins, and it was only once they’d imploded that I discovered how deeply indebted leader Billy Corgan’s songwriting was to David Bowie and his ever-shifting sound palette. The albums were grandiose, brimming with delicate nuance and bombastic hard edges; once the grunge hangover wore off, it was easier to see how clearly the band, and many of its contemporaries, learned from glam and art rock, Bowie’s signature contribution to pop music only a couple decades before.
My later teens were touched less deeply but no less memorably by his presence. First there was the surprise hit Trent Reznor collaboration, I’m Afraid of Americans, a menacing swirl of electronic rock that fit my mood perfectly. Then his Freddie Mercury duet, Under Pressure, enjoyed a resurgence in affection after memories of Vanilla Ice’s famous wholesale theft of the bassline faded. Finally, Puff Daddy’s lazy sampling of Let’s Dance only served to highlight how incredibly ahead of time the original 1983 hit really was. Aside these moments, I was getting into techno and jam bands, leaving pretty much all pop music behind for a while. I didn’t actively listen to Bowie very often, but he remained magnetic on the edges of perception.
Around the turn of the century, I immersed myself in his then-current work because of a strange and ambitious video game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Bowie worked closely with creator David Cage, playing a godlike character in digital form, providing his voice and a wealth of songs that were played by an in-game band. The music here became the album ‘Hours…’ and the only set of tunes that I was overly familiar with at the time. It was perfect to me, but at the time it wasn’t cool to be into David Bowie, so my pleasure was a lonely, private thing. This had become a recurring theme at this time of my life.
In 2004, my lonely fandom became a communal thing, thanks in large part to director Wes Anderson. His defining work, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, was framed by Bowie’s personality and music, forming the backbone of a story of misfits and losers on an improbable, misguided adventure. Selections from the singer’s late 1960s and early 70s output soundtracked the film, sprinkled from end to end. Even more importantly, a character played by Brazilian actor Seu Jorge sang acoustic covers of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era tunes in Portuguese between important scenes. These gently alien takes on classic songs teased out the warm heart of the often deadpan movie. I, and many of my friends, fell in love with the music all over again.
As my twenties roared on, I spent long months and years completely immersed in different eras of Bowie’s massive body of work. I dug through like an archaeologist, eventually finding myself deeply lost in his Berlin work with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. The lightly avant-garde feel of the music, mixing proto-punk attitude and German experimentalism, became the definitive sound in my ears. “Heroes”, the biggest hit from this time, became my secret romantic anthem. I watched as the burgeoning internet culture embraced the weirder side of Bowie. His least commercial yet most challenging work enjoyed a massive critical and popular revival. I was filled with a sense of comfort and awe at this newfound unabashed acceptance of a man I’d always identified with so closely.
My love for David Bowie always felt more personal than with other musical giants. Perhaps without knowing it, I recognized a kindred spirit in his slippery persona. He shifted fashion and art, changing images and attitudes like a rotating wardrobe. Despite his chameleonic appearance, he was always and only his truest self. To a weird kid with dark ideas and submerged ambitions, this example was more important than I understood. I could be every layer of myself at once, someone to everyone I knew, free of embarrassment or fear. It wasn’t stupid or ugly or dumb to be yourself, however uncool you may think you are. It took a long time for me to fully believe and embrace this fact, but I credit my relationship with my musical hero for nurturing it all along.
As Bowie continued to evolve, so did my appreciation for his work. Only a couple years ago, I finally got into perhaps his strangest album, 1995’s overlooked Outside. Connected by a loose sci-fi meta narrative, the music shakes with the ghosts of his most adventurous 70s output while simultaneously flaunting the embryonic trip-hop and IDM genres. The sound is exemplified by the future funk of I Haven’t Been To Oxford Town, a song that rarely leaves the back of my mind. Unlike nearly every other aging artist, he was unafraid of wielding the latest art forms, bending them to his own shape. Even rarer still, Bowie managed to pull it all off with confidence and style. Success kept coming artistically, if not commercially.
In retrospect, it feels auspicious that I discovered Outside so recently. As word spread that he was working on a new album, the narrative explained that it was to be his weirdest material in years. He’d assembled a new band and was dabbling in jazz and electronic music again. It was said to be uncompromising and brave. It was supposed to be everything I could hope for in a new David Bowie album.
As it turns out, Blackstar is all of these things and much, much more. It’s a wild, thrilling portrait of a master artist operating at the peak of his considerable powers. It’s unbelievable, coming from a man nearing his seventh decade of life. Arriving only late last week, I’ve listened a dozen times already. The labyrinthine song structures and cryptic lyrics beg closer attention, and I’m all too willing to dive in again and again. I was already at peace with the idea that this might be his final masterpiece when the news of his death hit Monday morning.
To say that it came as a shock is an incredible understatement. I woke up to storms on the final day of a weeklong stay in Mexico, taking a cursory glance at social media via the wifi in the hotel lobby. David Bowie was a tending topic. His album was so new that I thought nothing of it, until I scrolled down and saw the heartbreaking hashtag: #RIP.
I’ve never been so deeply affected by the death of someone I did not personally know. This is the real deal, the passing of my biggest hero. The man, in all his kaleidoscopic transformations, has been a constant throughout my life. The heart of my artistic identity has been punctured. I cried real tears as hundreds of people from across the Earth shuffled past. I was so choked up, I couldn’t even muster the courage to inform my friends at breakfast, not until it was clear I was aching about something.
After the initial sting receded, I was left in the incredible aftermath, the likes of which I haven’t seen before. People are coming together, sharing what made Bowie so special to each of them. This warm sense of unity spread across the world; we’re all in this together. It makes the loss so much more tangible, giving flight to the love and inspiration he’s given so many people over so many years. It’s almost unbelievable, a show of solidarity on a level I’d never believe if I wasn’t seeing it myself. Everyone I speak to has a story. Everyone is thinking of everyone else, reaching out and asking how the special music geeks in their lives are being affected. I’ve personally been contacted by so many friends and family. It’s humbling and awesome to experience.
Even in death, David Bowie is making art out of the connections between people around the world. More than his last album, this is his final gift to us all. I know the peace won’t last, so I’m gripping it tightly and taking a long, hard look at what makes this moment so strong. I’m taking heed of the man’s own words and lessons, the way he taught us to embrace what’s real inside, no matter how uncool and ephemeral it may be.
If I can choose one lasting rule to seize from Bowie’s example, it will be to live without fear. That sentiment may read blandly universal, so it’s easy to ignore how direct and real its rewards can be. No matter how brave I feel in a given moment, I can always do more, better, reach further and put myself out there in a bigger way. I’m not going to glimpse any sort of transcendence if I don’t risk it all. Bowie lived this credence in a way that few other artists in history have ever done. His dream will live forever if we let it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. Don’t be afraid of sharing your own story.