David Bowie, 1947-2016
I’m writing this down as a time capsule—in the event that one day, someone should ask me: “Where were you the day David Bowie died?”
I woke up to a phone call from my partner of five years: the first words I hear are “David Bowie died last night.” I shut down; I can’t think of a suitable response. I climb out of bed, brush my teeth, and step into the shower. And then I weep. Later, as I fix my to-go cup of coffee for work, I decide to play a side of vinyl. I don’t have much time to think about my selection—I just slide a disc out of its sleeve, place it on the turntable spindle, and drop the needle: a snare drum rhythm segues into a big R&B band sound. “They pulled in just behind the bridge/He lays her down, he frowns/’Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?'” I accidentally spill some of my to-go coffee on the inner sleeve of Young Americans and rush to wipe it off before it soaks into the paper. I think I get most of it out, but it already feels like a memento mori.
I go to work. Some people who know me and know of my obsession kindly approach and offer their condolences; I get a few text messages throughout the day (and, looking back, realize that the first was delivered at 6:00 this morning by a close friend). At some point it dawns on me: people are tip-toeing around me as though a relative has died. I feel unworthy—undeserving of such condolences; who am I to warrant this extent of sympathy? Just a fan, a follower… I never even had the opportunity to see him perform live in concert; never got any closer than an image on-screen, or the close inspection of an album cover.
I try to think of something to write in response to the emails flooding my inbox throughout the day; nothing worthwhile comes to mind. What do you say? In the words of my partner, “How do I say ‘Thank You’ to David Bowie?” Another employee at the agency I work for words his thoughts in a comparably elegant manner: “He’s a part of the musical fabric that I associate so much of my youth with, and it’s hard to believe he is gone.” Such a wonderfully succinct statement.
I suppose I could write about my in(tro)duction to David Bowie here—attempting to document the age(s) at which I became acquainted with each of his albums and films. I don’t know that this would do much good, especially since my memory on the matter is somewhat hazy: I can’t recall the first Bowie song I heard, or the first album I owned. I do recall the first film appearance I witnessed being Labyrinth, but I can’t say I cared for it very much at the time. I remember learning how to dance by watching his music videos—especially “Boys Keep Swinging” (which—in part—explains why I’m such a terrible dancer). I can’t explain the process in any logical fashion, but as I came of age, the word “Bowie”—and everything attached to this word—seeped into my consciousness, sub-consciousness, and just about every fiber of my being. It all became a part of my DNA, a sort of forensic file that I never tired of foraging through for new clues. As I place a few (extra) pieces of memorabilia in my cubicle, I realize that I am still foraging.
In remembering the progression of events from this morning, I realize that I forgot to mention something noteworthy—to me, at least: just before I leave for work, I open the lid to our laptop and connect my iPod. I highlight everything listed under “David Bowie” in our iTunes, drag it over to a new playlist (titled “BOWIE IS”) and sync. The playlist is just shy of 1,000 songs. Over the course of the day, in between meetings and appointments, I put the playlist on shuffle and try to type up some notes; I can’t bring myself to skip over anything—not even the dreaded cover of “Alabama Song,” which somehow sounds perfectly irreverent this time around (I can assure you, it never did in the past). I think part of me is afraid to skip out of fear that these songs could vanish at any time now, and the world might risk being deprived of a flawed but beautiful gem from the most incredible treasure trove of musical variations. Because variations on a single theme emerge immediately upon my quest to savor as much of this music as possible (given the limitations of my circumstances), and the theme is Other.
Bowie is other. Bowie is space oddity. Bowie is outside. Bowie is earthling—not human, but somehow of this earth. Bowie is heathen. Bowie is a lodger. Bowie is a lad insane. Bowie is a blackstar. Whatever he is (and he most certainly is) is somewhere beyond us. Although I can’t bring myself to read any of the obituaries or tributes yet—primarily for fear of turning into a blubbery mess—I can’t help but notice the recurrence of a single word in every headline I stumble upon: “transcend.” This is the word writers reach for when nothing else in the human lexicon will quite capture the gist of what they’re trying to put across. It’s an appropriate redundancy, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve been amazed by how many different people could be drawn together in conversation over a shared love of/for Bowie; the sheer range always seemed flabbergasting to me. Punks, drunks, dreamers; teachers, scholars, social workers; mothers, fathers, doctors; rockers, filmmakers, librarians: these are just a few of the known sorts I’ve associated with on the topic. [“I never thought I’d meet so many people…”] All of us are drawn to the Other in (and out of) this world. After all, Other implies possibilities—unknown pleasures—undiscovered terrain. Other implies that there’s more than just this. Other implies that there is more than what we know, and Other compels us to seek out Other knowledge. Other begins when we are children, and somehow tends to fade away as we grow older and more settled in our ways. I can’t help but think of the closing images in the last Bowie video, “Lazarus:” a skeletal, wizened update of Bowie’s Thin White Duke character climbs out of a wardrobe, dances a child-like routine in front of the camera, and sits down with ink and quill pen to write undisclosed messages—each gesture exaggerated to perfection. The final image shows this phantasmagoric incarnation shakily returning to his closet—but the gesture is not resigned in the slightest: the image seems to taunt us, “don’t stop counting, or I’ll be back to check on you when you least expect it.” [Isn’t that how it always seemed to work out, anyway?] The very name, “Bowie,” is Other than David’s birthright. This is probably part of what has made mourning for him so difficult: the inevitable need to mourn both realities—1. the death of a father, a husband; a living, breathing human being, and 2. the end of a legend. It feels as though we are in need of a good legend more than ever these days.
Craig and I spend the evening revisiting Bowie’s music videography, and close the night by watching his spellbinding performance in Oshima’s WWII P.O.W. drama, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. There’s a scene in the film when Bowie’s character, an English soldier named Jack Celliers, returns from a walk around the P.O.W. camp grounds with baskets of flowers and manju cakes for recovering soldiers in the hospital ward. Upon discovering this violation of camp law, the prison guards assault and carry Celliers away to an isolated cell; one of them claims that he must be “possessed by an evil spirit”—another believes him to be some sort of “devil.” None of them is capable of recognizing the purity and generosity of his gesture, and assume it must be the product of some unnatural perversion. Sound familiar?
Bowie has given us so much to be grateful for: throughout fifty-plus years of creative output, he’s proven to be one of the most generous and pure artists of our time. There are films, paintings, interviews; records, videos, photos and fashions. It’s an exhilarating ride, if you’re willing to climb aboard. In the closing track of Blackstar, the artist declares mournfully: “I can’t give everything away.” The song, beautiful as it is, sounds like a vacant complaint: what more could he possibly have given away to us? [For an instant—and only an instant—I feel guilty for wanting more]
As I prepare to turn in for the night—as I try to put a rest to this sad and inspiring (is it ok for it be both?) day—one final thought goes through my mind. In nuzzling the nose of our dog, in lying next to one another and shedding a few more tears, I am struck by my want of other(s): by the precious little amount of time we have in this world, and the importance of having others to share it with. I guess you could say I’m struck by the transcendence of it all.
In answer to Craig’s question: “How do I say ‘Thank You’ to David Bowie?”
I suppose you can say: “I’m thankful that we’re strangers when we meet.”