On January 10, 2016, at the age of 69 and after 18 months of battling cancer, David Bowie has become stardust.
It’s not really possible to quantify to what an incredible extent this one person has impacted any single individual, art form, or corner of culture — let alone the many millions around the world currently in mourning. Throughout the decades, the creative endeavors of David Bowie have proven themselves to be as magical as they were multifaceted, and their lasting imprint on the world is unlikely to recede in any foreseeable future. There is little doubt that having existed at the same time as David Bowie will one day be as monumental as having lived in the same time period as the likes of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Picasso, or any other artist who so excitedly stirred up the zeitgeist of their age.
The writer of this article is regrettably in the position of having had a friend, also a musician, die within just a few days of Mr. Bowie. Within this entanglement of grief, one side being for the loss of a dear friend, and the other being for the departure of an icon of great admiration, he cannot help but ponder what all of us so deeply love about the exceedingly thoughtful irreverence of rock n’ roll, as well as what sad forces have removed two great rockstars from his own life.
In the case of Bowie’s life, there are endless catalogues of his creative genius, his monumental rise to stardom, and his fundamental challenges to contemporary views on social normalcy, human sexuality, and the nature of artistic expression. It’s easy for fans to think of David Bowie as something of a demigod, and at least culturally, an immortal. The many brilliant characters he conceived in his time as a performer also fuel the myth that he was superhuman (either for his great fame, or equally great intellect) rather than an ordinary person. Personally, I like to think of Bowie as having had a great deal of vulnerable ordinariness to him, perhaps even having more in common than not with my recently deceased friend.
It was only through making himself vulnerable that he could so strongly connect his work to the hearts and minds of so many others. This is maybe most powerfully embodied by Bowie’s first famous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust — A red-haird, glitter-covered, kimono-wearing, paganlike bisexual rockstar from outer space. Such a surreal aesthetic seems out there even by today’s standards, but the controversy it caused in a still mostly conservative 1970s Britain is difficult to understate. Some idea of Ziggy’s polarizing effect can be absorbed from media coverage of his performances at the time. In the Early 70s, Bowie was still seen by many in the press as mere fad of calculated shock value, but at the same time was already drawing an outpour of fanatical adoration.
But Ziggy did not come from outer space. He came from Brixton. Ziggy Stardust was the embodiment of a man who desperately wanted to depart the banality of postwar Britain and aspire to live a life that was, although quite imaginative, somehow also more honest than the “reality” from which he came. With a combination of prodding from his then wife and manager Angie Bowie to spice up his act and an influential trip to New York where he met the likes of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Iggy pop, David Bowie’s intuitive mind conceived of a character that was as aggressively avant-garde as it was emotionally exposing. You could say he fused the fragility of a Lou Reed with the fearlessness of Iggy Pop, or the irony of Warhol with the openness of Warhol’s studio/venue The Factory… the theories go on and on.
Before the rise of Ziggy, however, Bowie was an ex-art student who had played the saxophone in bands as a teenager, enjoyed mediocre success as a folk singer in the 60s, and even at one point spent a great deal of time trying to become a professional mime. This classical training, however eclectic, gave the foundation for everything that would follow in Bowie’s decades long career, from new musical characters, to plays, to cult film roles, to success as a fashion icon, to albums inspired by various art movements. Bowie reinvented himself again and again. Since then, few have ever had the social intelligence to so brilliantly combine the appeal of pop music with the nuance of intellectualism in the ways that he could. Bowie’s best work always brought with it an entertainment-oriented rockstar surface laid upon astonishingly cerebral and perspective-altering substance. In one of his more candid interviews in 1978, Bowie explained to some extent the application of theater techniques to his rock act, as well as how staying in character served as a critical buffer between himself and his fame.
Within all of this swirling creativity and international success, however, also emerged addiction, paranoia, and depression. Despite the tragedy of an untimely death at 69, we are arguably fortunate not to have lost David Bowie at 29. The skinny armed, pale creature that embodied his mid 70s stage persona, The Thin White Duke, or the discombobulated, dying spaceman that shaped his role in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth were not just an acts of alien, androgynous showmanship. They were the direct result of a horrendous cocaine dependency.
It is a tragedy that many of the most intelligent, sensitive, and open-minded people out there are most often the ones who succumb to an early death for these very reasons. Bowie, luckily, was not one of them. He went on to spend the late 70s in West Berlin, where he became clean of drugs and also created three experimental albums: Low, Heroes, and Lodger, which together are now known as his Berlin Trilogy. He also produced an album for Iggy Pop, another rock legend who had come to Berlin in order to kick his addictions (perhaps not the best place on earth to do that). As in London and in New York, Bowie’s observations of Berlin’s cultural environment compelled him to make creations utterly different from what he had done before.
Berlin, a city more mangled by the consequences of human ideology than most, is a particularly good place for a person to step back from their sense of self, and have a good look at what is creatively possible (or at least that is the belief of the person who writes this article via Berlin). To this day it is a place of weirdness, openness, and artistic experimentation. It may not be as lawlessly punk rock now as it was in the days of the wall, but there is a spirit here that draws many to live out their own Berlin trilogies, in hopes of successfully coming to terms with the most conflicting aspects of themselves while also creating a sense of someone less passive and more passionate than whoever first arrived in this utterly surreal city.
David Bowie’s own music, of course, is no stranger to the surreal. As much as Bowie’s work is arguably about the illusory nature of reality, within it comes the assertion that each person’s impressions are their own, and are just as valid as anyone else’s (something Bowie absorbed personally as a youth while spending time with his schizophrenic cousin). Such an idea seems to permeate every aesthetic, character, concept, and style that Bowie has ever brought forward. The pluralism of life, as well as its vast complexity when compared to our uniquely human experience, requires that our lives are defined not by any ultimate truth, but by what we bring sentiment to. This seems embodied by the diversity of the Starman’s own creative endeavors.
Bowie’s intuitive understanding of the nature of art, and how it collides with the contemporary world could not have been more spot on. It’s hard to see his assertions about some creative revolutions within today’s world as anything less than decades ahead of their time, and to some even prophetic. One need only hear him talk about the Internet’s effect on how people will interact with content in the year 2000 to understand how very intelligent Bowie was when contemplating art’s role in defining who we are.
It’s the way that David Bowie addressed “the grey space in the middle” that I most admired about him. The man’s music, lifestyle, and social assertions took immense intellect and creativity to live out. They took forethought, open-mindedness, charisma, and balls. His cultural footprint has travelled not just across recent music history, but also into our modern social landscape. It can be seen via the stage sets and theatrics of modern pop stars, and even through Bowie’s still famous cameos in cult hits such as Labyrinth and Zoolander. Maybe no other piece of work currently evokes more immediate sadness than his final Album — Blackstar. Seen as highly enigmatic upon it’s immediate release, Bowie’s recent death puts the album’s lyrics and music videos into a soberingly clear context. It’s his farewell performance.
Death, it seems, is an inappropriate way for people who so deeply impact us to vanish from this earth. Even if we know it to be everyone’s end, we can’t help but feel that the people we care about deserve something better than the standard organic decay and departure that awaits us all. Whatever we learn about the human brain, the nature of consciousness, or the science behind our experience, even the most evaluative of us cannot ever totally escape the sensation that each of us has a soul. Nowhere, it seems, does that feel more the case than when certain ideas, feelings, and bits wisdom from others make contact with our own lives.
The potential wonder that a single life can unlock with the tenacity and creativity of an open mind is something that I treasure above all else. David Bowie was one of those people who through their art proved just how much wonder there is to be found. This in part is why I feel such a great sense of camaraderie with anyone who has grieved the death of someone who inspired them — be it someone they knew personally or someone they only knew through their work.
Our lives come to a close only once. But we must be grateful for those who help keep our minds open each day we are alive. All of us know a rockstar in one form or another. For that, we are unbelievably lucky.