David Bowie wasn’t the dying type. Ever the chameleon, he and his protean panoply of characters – Ziggy, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane – weren’t of this world. Like so many others, I figured he’d continue reinventing himself, growing older on terrestrial terms but drawing no closer to death.
I’d always felt a simultaneous alienation and intimacy in his songs. “Starman” and “Space Oddity,” in some senses both songs sung in a vacuum, were superficially alien but really, truly human. I’ve heard the comment – no doubt intended as scathing criticism – that Bowie’s artistry and acts were intended for the “weird kids” in the crowd. There, the implication was that weird was in some way separable from a general population of the un-weird – an impossibly dull hypothesis and, fortunately, an inaccurate one.
Some of the weird was only skin-deep: it was easy to mock the face-paint, the brick-red mullet (even the fashion-forward may fall), the over-the-top body suits spangled with glitter. Harder, however, was any attempt to overlook the poetic power of his songs – listen to “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” for a lyrical punch in the gut, “Fashion” for a sleek, cutting critique of popular culture, “Fame” for its condemnation of celebrity.
This was the weird-profound, Bowie’s examination of the world’s arbitrary beauty and ugliness – how strange it could be, how universal and familiar. Through it all, he remained endlessly self-aware, occasionally poking fun at his own characters (“You’ve got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” he quips in “Rebel Rebel,” a reference to his then-scandalous androgyny).
Bowie’s awareness hinted at a man who existed beyond a succession of character-caricatures. He’d slowly emerge by way of pensive, late-career productions – Bowie’s 24th album, ”The Next Day,” more mute than its predecessors, reveals an artist grown wise but not jaded. With “The Next Day,” he allowed that certain things were a young man’s game. He’d had his fun with Ziggy & Co.; it was time to cast aside the Spiders from Mars, retire Pierrot and the Thin White Duke and be, simply, David Bowie.
And he did so with incredible grace. His output remained as innovative and introspective as ever. As it was, by the beginning of this year, he’d fought the good fight against cancer for 18 months. In that time, he continued to create – never one to dwell on impressive laurels, he released Blackstar (★) just days before his death. After repetitive plays of the album’s Lazarus track, I’m feeling, more and more, as though ★ was Bowie’s parting gift: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”
“For now, crying is appropriate,” Tony Visconti, a longtime David Bowie collaborator, has said. For now, we bid a fond farewell to David Bowie. But this grief is temporary – far more than a parting, Bowie’s passage is the return trip. The Starman’s finally gone home.
Image from here.