Today is the day I learned that David Bowie had died. So I’m writing some thoughts down to try and make sense of it. This probably seems strange, as I am normally averse to displays of grief over public figures. It’s always seemed a little – I don’t know, a bit weird. Almost unnecessary. But now, perhaps for the first time, I feel it.
I was at drinks and the news flashed on my phone; could it be a hoax, a hacked status update? Later, as I rode a train to meet friends, it was confirmed: Duncan Jones and the Beeb showed that this wasn’t the perennial internet jape of proclaiming someone dead. This was the real thing. And I felt teary, and weird, and like I didn’t want to be anywhere because this was, as stupid as it sounds, about someone very important to me, who I had never, would never meet. Dear, strong friends were lamenting; I’d not felt the tyranny of distance so keenly as when one suggested that we should all be together tonight, with a case of wine and music. But we’re in Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney, Helsinki, Amsterdam… all over the world.
I know, this probably will read as something rather indulgent – no different from the torrent of thinkpieces and reminiscences the coming weeks will bring – but this is my blog, so this is mine. There’s a bunch of obituaries you can read. The NY Times. The BBC. The Guardian. Vanity Fair. Mine is a bit different. It’s me processing this feeling of loss, which is strange. I know nobody’s ever an arsehole just after they’ve died, but it’s weird – I realise today I’d never really entertained the idea of Bowie dying. Because, like the sun, I felt he’d always be there. He always had been, right?
I wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up with the full albums – he wasn’t what my parents were into. But I always knew about him. I saw stuff on the ABC when I was small, and I always knew those songs. The big ones from Ziggy and ‘Sorrow‘ I recall hearing a bunch when I was young, but I distinctly remember what happened from Scary Monsters onward. I came to love them all – even the malformed coke-epics – later on, with an especial spot for those Berlin disks. But as a kid? Of course, Let’s Dance was inescapable – and so much more valuable because here was this alien sex god rock star amazing chameleon man making filmclips in Australia, while he was living here! In Elizabeth Bay! I never saw him, but knowing he was on the same island as me at some point made me strangely happy.
Embarrassingly, my first album was the Changesbowie compile, and I was mystified how someone could put out something that had so many good tracks on it, being a bit young and dim and not realising it was a best-of.
What a catalogue, though. I remember rummaging through Parisian record stores with Jamie, my partner at the time, looking for Ryko issues of the albums because they had bonus tracks you couldn’t get anywhere else. Scary Monsters remains, I think, my favourite, though I am supremely fond of the Eno-steered art-wank of Outside and the recordings from the following tour. Who turns 50 and steals NIN’s thunder? Bowie, man.
‘Ashes to Ashes’, I think, remains my favourite track. It’s the one I most clearly remember engaging with when young. I’d heard other stuff, but this one – the solarised filmclip, the Pierrot costume, the elegant astronaut hair, the bulldozer, that sproing sound – smacked me around. And as I grow older, the mea culpa, the personal examination and the forlorn tiredness of the song takes on a different meaning.
I’ve never done good things.
I’ve never done bad things.
I never did anything out of the blue.
But I guess they were illustrative of how Bowie lived. Most artists have one persona, and kind of do one thing, broadly speaking. Bowie had multiples, was multiples. Was it all good? Nope. But he kept pushing himself to reinvent, to do new things. Even at his drug-fucked lowest – I mean that string of 1980s albums – there was always something perverse, or challenging, or just unexpected to dig into. He never fucking stopped.
(And that’s not touching on his film work: he doesn’t get enough credit for his turns in stuff like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or as Tesla in The Prestige, for how absolutely gut-wrenching he is in The Man Who Fell To Earth. For some reason, it’s easy to dismiss the latter as “Bowie playing Bowie” but it’s much more than that. But you know, find me someone who hates Labyrinth‘s arch tight-pants, big-haired, ball-dandling Goblin King and I’ll show you a big fucking liar.)
For all the high-art stuff he did – the mime, the acting, the riffing on Roquairol, there was always the sense, I felt, that behind it Bowie knew it was all a bit of a laugh, a bit silly. That’s why I feel this impersonation probably hits the nail on the head: I always figured the people involved would have a chuckle at it because come on. “I’m in a scary cave with bats,” is the best one-line distillation of the Berlin years, right?
While I was living in London, I remember seeing The Man Who Fell To Earth for the first time and dyeing my hair that colour. It didn’t work: I lacked the colouring and the cheekbones to pull that shit even remotely off. But I did it because I felt that if he could do it, so could I. This was a guy who changed everything in his life as easily as his undies, and there’s something in the way he lived that seemed to insist to people that you could do whatever you wanted. You could dye your hair, be a freak, say you liked boys or girls (it’s confusing these days) because as difficult as it might be, there was David, leading the way. Providing some kind of beacon, or solace – a kind of glam version of the penates, the Roman household gods. It’d always be OK, because on some level, Bowie reassured you that not being “normal” was absolutely fine and, in fact, deeply preferable. And effortlessly fucking stylish.
But now, there’s his last album, Blackstar. A new band! No interviews! Dropping on his birthday! And two new filmclips – one featuring a dead astronaut with a fabulously jeweled skull. Major Tom at rest. The other? Hospital beds and winding sheets, a cupboard and retreat. The lyrics?
Look up here: I’m in heaven.
Reading this quote from co-producer Tony Visconti was like a loving punch in the heart.
He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.
It was planned. It is a message, a gathering of pieces from his life, left for us to find after he’d gone. It is an envelope, not to be understood until we were alone. It was a final work of art in a life dedicated to it.
Everyone has a favourite song, or a bunch of them. But I guess I’ll sign off this thing with this one. Because it is everything Bowie did well: collaboration (Eno’s wall-of-synths, Fripp’s amazing guitar); observation (the ironic quotes, the lyrics snatched from a studio embrace); change (it was only given lyrics late in recording), borrowing (it’s based on a Neu! tune) and of course that lyrical nous. It’s hopeful and encouraging and sad all at once, and it makes my heart burst to listen to it, today.
He might have meant it ironically at that point in his life, but it seems real enough now. If we lived even a little bit as keen on being our absolutely individual selves, as Bowie did, we can be heroes. For ever and ever.
What d’you say?