Why David Bowie’s Death Hurts So Damn Much: Feeling The Thin White Duke Blues? Join the club. Looking back on an icon.
Even before I heard he died, David Bowie has been on my mind as of late.
My newborn daughter has enjoyed Rockabye Baby, a collection of Bowie songs, lullaby style.
I’d been listening to his excellent new album Blackstar since its release last week.
And while my wife was recuperating in the hospital, I got her the latest copy of Mojo Magazine, featuring a cover story on the Thin White Duke (the couple that listens to Bowie together, stays together).
So last night, as I settled in for bed, I couldn’t believe what was on my Facebook feed. Surely it was a hoax? Or perhaps his grandest PR stunt? He just had his 69th birthday…how could this be?
But then it sank in. The Starman was gone.
It’s one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever felt from any celebrity death. And if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you feel it too.
Part of why Bowie’s death is so distressing, is that it feels like he’s always been with us. Certainly for Generation X and onwards, he has.
Since I was born in 1971, I wasn’t in on the ground floor for his glam rock phase (unlike those lucky baby boomers). For me and millions of kids, it was MTV that put Bowie into our brains during his New Wave phase. And I’ve been hooked ever since.
For those younger than myself, it was his appearance in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth that made them first fall in love, and so it goes.
That’s the beauty of Bowie: when and wherever you discover him-that’s the perfect time. It sets you up to follow his future sonic adventures, and to backtrack to his past glories. Every generation had their jumping on point.
I remember hearing Ziggy Stardust (who I named our blue/green eyed cat after, FYI) on classic rock radio as a kid and being mystified this is the same man who gave us Fashion and Lets Dance. It made him all the more intriguing. What couldn’t he do?
The term chameleon-like has been used endlessly to describe his work, but how else to classify his multi-faceted career?
And that’s one reason his presence was so comforting. As we went through adolescence, young adulthood and other major life events, he changed along with us. He showed that reinventing oneself needn’t be scary, but often a necessary tool for survival, be it in sound or vision (and usually both).
That’s why John Hughes use of the quote from Changes in The Breakfast Club showed Bowie as the patron saint of the freaks and geeks and awkward in-betweens.
That’s part and parcel of why kids who grew up under the influence of Bowie didn’t have all the hangups on sexuality that their elders did. His exploration of androgyny, gay culture and bisexuality in the early 70’s was absolutely revolutionary, mostly in how nonchalantly he expressed it. If he was over it, everyone else should be too.
Likewise, his embracing of Black American soul, Japanese fashion and German Expressionism offered a fleet-footed note of tolerance: one can only grow when exposed to different environments, and his fans benefitted by default.
We’re living in the world better off for having Bowie in it.
There’s a Bowie Album For Everyone
Have you ever met anyone who hated David Bowie? I mean, I’m sure they’re out there somewhere (but I hope never to cross their path)…and he might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but due to his constant evolution, he had something to offer for any music fan.
This is why for every outright classic albums, like Heroes or Low, there are other albums like the 90’s techno-fueled Earthling, or his late 80’s proto-grunge band Tin Machine that while not quite meshing with critics and casual fans, thrilled those with more experimental tastes. (Even the critically panned 1987 album Never Let Me Down still had Time Will Crawl).
No other artist flirted with huge pop hooks and dissonant art rock as successfully. Or with such longevity and vitality.
He never stood out like a Dad trying to be hip when he hung out with younger musicians. Sure he received some alternative rock cred by touring with Trent Reznor, or his 50th birthday bash playing alongside Billy Corgan, Robert Smith and Frank Black. But one could argue that he’s the singular force behind alternative music in the first place.
Madonna, Prince, Peter Murphy, Marilyn Manson, the also recently departed Scott Weiland, and on and on and on. Practically every rock artist you’ve enjoyed since the 70’s has been influenced by Bowie in some form or fashion. They wouldn’t be here otherwise. And his work with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed proved he had the power to elevate and transform his peers.
But there is one way he remains untouchable, inimitable and singular: he was always current. Always searching, always exploring, always one step ahead of the curve. Sure artists like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger still exist and have their faculties. But that’s where the comparisons end. He was eternally cool, and forever shall be.
Which leads us to Blackstar, and to the end. His longtime producer Tony Visconti discussed the new album in a tribute, writing: His death was not 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.
One listen to Blackstar and you’d be hard pressed to imagine it was made by a man with terminal cancer. There are countless musicians less than half his age who couldn’t put out anything as powerful.
And while we now realize that Blackstar’s purpose was to prepare both artist and audience for his passing, acting like a self eulogy, the truth is Bowie has been looking at his own mortality since the beginning of his career. Space Oddity, My Death, Ashes to Ashes, Rock’n’Roll Suicide. All solemn tone poems on passing on to the next life, of letting go with grace, not panic.
Bowie was always ready. Again ahead of the curve. Then he let Blackstar into the world, and bid farewell three days later (a grand exit as only he could pull off). But we still don’t want to let go.
True confession: before I wrote this piece I came back from running errands, while blasting Blackstar in my car. When the final track I Can’t Give Everything Away subsided, I lost it. So many emotions and memories…thoughts of my father passing away from cancer, how life just isn’t fair when there are so many horrific people still milling about their day. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I’m not proud to admit that I emerged from car with damp eyes and wet cheeks. But I’m not ashamed either. I kissed my wife and baby when I came inside and let it all sink in. Bowie has been with me this whole time. He even helped me through my anxieties of my wife giving birth.
And now we have a daughter who’s going to grow up in his influence and love his music, because how could she not? There’s a Bowie album for everyone after all…