I was still lazing in bed this morning, petting the cat and absent-mindedly delighting in the blue flickers of St. Elmo’s fire that danced between his fur and my fingers in the pre-dawn darkness, when Anne shouted to me from the bathroom.
“Holy shit! Bowie’s dead!”
What? I thought. That doesn’t make sense. I must not have heard her correctly.
“What did you say?!” I shouted back.
“I just read that Bowie died. Cancer!”
I sat straight up, sending my poor kitty scrambling off the bed. It couldn’t be! Surely this was one of those Internet hoaxes that go around from time to time? Alas, no. David Bowie has in fact died at the age of 69 after fighting cancer (and somehow keeping it out of the press) for the last year and a half. I wouldn’t say this news devastated me, but I have had a very somber day because of it.
The funny thing is, I wasn’t even much of a fan. I’ve more often respected his music than really enjoyed it. From the time I first became aware of him during the “Let’s Dance” era of the early ’80s, I was put off by the very things that his true fans seem to have responded to most, namely the otherworldly weirdness of both his vocal style and his chameleonic persona. He wasn’t my kind of rock-and-roll hero. And yet… I never actually disliked him. He was weird, yes, but even I couldn’t deny the man’s charisma and intelligence.
Over the years, as I’ve become more catholic in my tastes and come to understand the historical connections underlying the music I love, I’ve become fonder of David Bowie. I recently worked my way through a DVD compilation of the 1985 Live Aid concert, and I was frankly startled by his performance there, by how self-assured and just plain joyful he appeared to be on that stage. There is a special and yet very simple pleasure in watching a seasoned journeyman musician at the top of his or her game, no matter what genre he or she works in. How could I not have seen that back in ’85? (Answer: I was young and stupid.)
Bowie’s career spanned my entire lifetime. His seminal album Space Oddity — technically his second one, but the first to really attract any attention — was released in 1969, the year I was born. His final album hit the streets only days ago. He went through fallow periods during those 46 years, but always came roaring back at some point or another with a new album or film, a new sound, a new character. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Bowie the New Waver, Bowie the glam-rocker, Bowie the musical elder statesman. It felt as if he’d always been here — and always would be here — in one form or another, under one guise or another, and his passing seems to have jerked a tentpole out from everybody in my general age cohort, who just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that he’s not there any more. Seriously, I haven’t seen so many of my fellow Gen Xers sharing the same glum expression since Jim Henson died way back in 1990. And isn’t that interesting, considering they were connected through Henson’s film Labyrinth, a movie in which Bowie starred that failed on its first release but has since become something of a generational touchstone? I imagine there have been as many tears shed today for Jareth the Goblin King as for Ziggy, at least among we fortysomethings.
You have to admire an artist with that kind of reach, as well as one who found a way to keep doing the work he loved until literally just before his death. As his longtime producer Tony Visconti put it, even Bowie’s death was a work of art, delivered in the form of his final album, which Bowie evidently held onto until he knew his time was growing short. The album is, of course, a farewell to his fans and to the world that he never quite seemed to belong to. No, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan… but damn, I do have a lot of respect for the man.
One final thought: She didn’t want to take any credit for it, but I have to extend my thanks to my cousin K’lyn for creating the nifty photo collage at the top of this post. Nice work!