I wanted to throw together some thoughts on David Bowie’s passing. I haven’t done so until now because I really don’t care about Bowie.
JUST KIDDING, PEOPLE. Actually, it’s just taken longer than expected. In the days after an untimely death, one often gets the snap judgments, first impressions that still often contain considerable merit and truth. Hopefully time offers deeper understanding.
I won’t pretend Bowie was my favorite musician—not that I have one, but I’ve never named a child in partial tribute (the way I did with Iggy Pop), or hoped to have one of his songs played at my hopefully still-distant funeral (the way I do with Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”), or used his name frequently as an Internet password (the way I’ve done with…someone else). Still, he is one of the greats for me—someone I’ll binge on in phases, then take time away from a bit, then go back to renewed. And like all such greats, he’s soundtracked my life.
Many instances come to mind: getting “Space Oddity” stuck in my best friend’s head back in high school, or rocking out to “Heroes” to power me through bland mornings of cubicle work. But perhaps my favorite was a Saturday evening over a decade ago.
It was summer of 2002, back in my drinking days; I’m not sure if I didn’t have many friends at the time, or if I was just lonely. But I have a distinct memory of putting on Hunky Dory while home alone in my downtown Chicago studio apartment and giving it a good solid listen while polishing off a few bottles of High Life and cooking myself a spaghetti dinner. It wasn’t the first time I’d listened to the album, but it was one of those listens where I’d picked exactly the right bit of music to accompany my mood. I distinctly remember the golden beer buzz starting to settle in while wondering if any sequencing of tracks could top the segue from “Oh! You Pretty Things” to “Eight Line Poem.” I was drinking to warm up for another cold night as a lonely barfly. But I don’t recall meeting anyone else that night, and if I did, I remember Bowie more.
It is an illusion, of course, to imagine we really know anyone with whom we have such an asymmetrical relationship. But it does feel real. Other musicians may be casual acquaintances; Bowie’s more like an old friend, someone who’s dammed up such a reservoir of good feeling within you that you want to spend more time with them, either to relive the glory days, or to see what they’re up to these days. And when you do, you often find old lines that resonate with you in new ways.
Now it’s winter in downtown Chicago. I caught news of Bowie’s passing on a Monday morning through a quick status update from a Facebook friend, confirmed moments later by a visit to cnn.com. I read a great many think pieces and did a great deal of thinking; I marveled that someone so edgy could inspire warm words not only from Iggy Pop, but from the Vatican as well. And now I’ve been throwing down these words in an office cafeteria with expansive views, and on the rocking chilly Red Line.
The common refrain about Bowie is that he found mainstream success by being a weirdo; he made it OK for all of us freaks and nerds, everyone who’s felt a dork among the jocks, or a woman trapped in a man’s body, or an alien amidst the humans. And there’s certainly a lot of truth in that—disconnection and alienation found their voice in him, and his plasticity and artifice ended up feeling more real than many others’ realities.
In the time since, I’ve been revisiting Heroes and Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, seeing the truth in all the eulogies and finding the new meanings in the old words; I’m wondering if he’d still agree with what he said, that knowledge comes with death’s release. But I’ve made more memories, too. I bought Blackstar that first afternoon, and the disconnected observer in me marveled that he’d timed its release so well. Here was a master performer giving an epic performance, a changeling on the other side of the greatest change of all, a showman and a businessman who’d timed his exit perfectly after selling us his own eulogy. But as I listened, headphones on, walled off in my mellow grey cubicle, the music dissolved all judgments, and I felt something else: connected, touched, haunted and moved to tears by that voice so full of feeling, this superstar who was, for all the alienation, wonderfully and tragically human.