Last night at a quarter to midnight, I saw a link on a friend’s Facebook page to a statement saying that David Bowie had died. “Is this true?” she was asking. I did some quick checking around the Internet, didn’t see anything, and responded, “This is bullshit. It pisses me off when people pull hoaxes like this for their own enjoyment.”
Twenty minutes later, I felt I had to delete that response. Unfortunately.
I texted my friend Trey with the news. He was similarly in shock. We exchanged several more texts, and then he sent one that said, “I could be at your place in about 30 minutes.” And so, until 2 a.m., we sat outside and drank drinks and smoked cigars and listened to the music of David Bowie and wondered aloud about each other’s health and mortality.
David Bowie was more than just an innovator. He was an explorer. An adventurer. Because he seemed to live every moment to the utmost, infusing our world with art of all sorts (making music, but also film and stage and paintings and more), constantly surrounded by art and artists and never looking backward, in an effort to prove that Bowie must after all be human, one publication saw fit to collect a series of photos of Bowie doing ordinary things. It is by far the most unusual photo series about the man, because Bowie appearing down-to-earth looks so out of context.
In addition to his superhuman accomplishments,Bowie also was an avatar for people who wanted to be themselves, no matter what society thought they should be, or do, or look like, as so many friends have reminded me today. One, a gay man, said that Bowie was seen carrying a purse in the 1970s, and that made things seem easier. Holly Hughes posted this on her Facebook page: “Like many queer people of my generation I can’t overstate how much I loved David Bowie. He was the first pop star I loved.” Bowie made it okay to be different.
Even more than the essential reality check he brought to every moment, in which he reminded you that what others thought shouldn’t matter because, as Jim Morrison wrote, “no one here gets out alive,” Bowie provided music that always sounded somehow very right by sounding somehow a little wrong. In the way that my favorite Fitzgerald novel is “Tender is the Night” because the structure doesn’t quite work and its imperfections make it seem more true, the dissonance and off-kilter rhythms Bowie brought to his best work could snap you out of the conformity of sound. Whether it’s the achingly slow vocal in “Cat People,” the surprising double-tracked piano solo in “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” or the alien aural landscape of Low, Bowie’s work demanded attention. Muzak it wasn’t.
Today, I’m grateful for several things.
That I got to see him perform live — including on his very last tour, in April of 2004 in Anaheim. I’d seen him in the 1980’s on the “Serious Moonlight” tour, when he traversed the globe with a massive set and special effects, and that was wonderful. But seeing Bowie 12 years ago with a stripped-down band on a nearly bare stage, performing in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers and seeming every bit of 20 or 30 years younger, was powerful. Here was someone stuffed to the gills with life.
That he was such a powerful gateway drug. Is it because of David Bowie that I was introduced to Devo, and Brian Eno, and TV on the Radio, and Robert Fripp, and so many other things that made me sit up and ask “What is that???” Perhaps not all of it — but a lot if it. Bowie had taste. I was willing to eat anything he was serving.
And I’m grateful for so much more, including all the wonderful music, but I’m especially grateful that I got a full day of listening to “Blackstar,” which I bought immediately upon release, before I learned that he was dead. The album had one meaning for me — “Here’s Bowie’s latest! What crazy shit is this?” — before it had another: “Here’s Bowie’s last. It fills me with joy, and with ashes.”
I bought “Blackstar” on Saturday and listened to it that night while my wife and I drove to hear the Pasadena Symphony. It sounded exotic, and difficult, and haunting. It played through once, and then I changed it — but she stopped me and asked, “What are you doing? I want to hear that again.” Something hypnotic and unknowable that I hear in most of Bowie’s music had grabbed her. The next day, I lay on the living room couch, drinking coffee and reading the LA Times while playing the CD loud in the background. “Why is this so loud?” one of my children asked. “Because it’s fantastic,” I said. I will always cherish that moment — listening to the new David Bowie album, really letting it sink in, admiring the adventure of a 69-year-old international celebrity daring to do something brand-fucking-new-sounding at that advanced age.
Twelve hours later, the album held a very different meaning.
Three final thoughts.
Of all the messages and thoughts I’ve read — too many to read them all, given that literally hundreds of millions of people are mourning — this is my favorite. It actually makes me feel better:
David Bowie has returned to his home after an all too brief sojourn amongst humanity.
The departure means that sadly it is the world that looks very different today.
He leaves behind a substantial body of work, including several autobiographical albums about the experience of being something more than human amongst mere mortals.
The singer’s home is believed to be somewhere in the constellation of Sirius but, like so much about him, this was left extremely ambiguous.
Bowie took up residence on this planet after falling to Earth, but it was generally accepted that no one planet could sufficiently contain him for long.
Fans are comforted with the knowledge that life continues somewhere, if not necessarily on Mars.
In response to the news, people worldwide are politely requesting that Tom Waits and David Attenborough go to bed early and take care of themselves, as there’s only so much of this we can stand.
Jodrell Bank have confirmed ground control will continue to call for him into the silent, eternal void, hoping for a signal.
Hats off to whoever wrote that.
Secondly, my daughter, who had gone with me on Saturday to buy the new CD, told me today when I picked her up from school that she was glad she knew David Bowie’s music while he was alive. In her view, everyone at school had climbed on board because he was dead, but she had been there first. I know that view well, having been there with Bowie a long, long time ago. She also bemoaned the music of her generation: “What do we have? ‘Whip Nae Nae’?”
Finally, by the end of today, a different feeling came over me. A deterministic sense that because our own path lies within each of us, we can make of everything what we will. Therefore, now that it’s The Next Day, I’ve decided not to buy into the whole David Bowie is Dead hoax and to just go on in happy anticipation of his imminent tour.
It’s better this way.
David Bowie lives on.