It’s taken me a handful of days to be able to sit down and put my thoughts and feelings into order following the announcement last Monday of the death of David Bowie. Over the last few years, there have a been a number of deaths of famous people who have touched my life in various and important ways, but I was not prepared for – have been completely taken aback by – the depth of my emotional response to this news.
There have been several striking deaths from the world of music in particular recently. There was of course the passing of the mighty Lemmy Kilmister over Christmas which, without feeling personal, was definitely poignant; the death of a true legend and – by all accounts – thoroughly decent bloke. Lemmy had lived the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for at least the last 50 years, and it had been easy to believe that he was in fact immortal. He always had his foot planted squarely on the accelerator of life, but after being forced to withdraw from a number of live shows earlier in the year, it seemed like the end was finally on the horizon. He always said that he wanted to die doing what he loved right up until the very end, and that is precisely what happened.
Prior to that was Scott Weilland, whose passing most certainly did have a personal edge for me. For many years, he had seemed to be teetering on the edge of an untimely death, but there was always a glimmer of hope that he might make it out of the other side of his addiction OK. I felt a great sadness, but also a sense of resignation, when his story ultimately ended the way I’d always hoped that it wouldn’t.
But Bowie was different. Bowie was pure, unadulterated loss – and completely unexpected for everyone except those closest to him. A cross-section of my entire life had suddenly been sliced away. A layer of warmth and brightness suddenly absent.
I couldn’t speak to anyone at work on Monday morning, though to be honest, I’m not sure that my colleagues would have noticed; I am normally in a shitty, reclusive mood anyway due to being back in after a weekend of doing my own thing. I spent most of Monday dripping silent tears into my coffee, tucked down behind my monitor. I had my earphones locked in, immersing myself in the musical tributes on the radio, feeling wave after wave of emotion rolling up my spine, wringing my face into twisted masks and squeezing my chest until it burned and felt impossibly heavy.
There has only ever been one other occasion in the nearly 38 years of my life where I have experienced this level of grief at the loss of another being. Bowie was not family, he was not a friend, nor someone I had even ever met, and it’s hard to convey to people who don’t care exactly why it means so much. No he didn’t know me, but he had spent years talking to me, singing to me, playing music for me… Suddenly, for the first time in my life, there was no David Bowie and it hurt.
I wasn’t born until 1978, so by the time David Bowie featured in my reality, he had already done his ground-breaking, rule-defying, scene-changing work. By that point, he had been accepted by the mainstream, and had achieved mass commercial success. This meant that while I can pinpoint the exact moments that I discovered Motörhead and Stone Temple Pilots, David Bowie was always just THERE; Fashion, Modern Love, Let’s Dance, China Girl, Under Pressure, Dancing in the Street, Labyrinth…
There was never any negative association for me with Bowie. He was just a talented, beautiful singer, who made excellent music and made me feel slightly squiffy as Jareth the Goblin King, in a way I couldn’t really have explained at the time.
As I got older, I began to appreciate more of the history and legacy of David Bowie, the outstanding back-catalogue of work, the innovative progression of his music, and the stage characters – both human and alien – that he used to deliver it. He became an actual 3D personality who was always unapologetically himself in a way that I have tried to be but haven’t always managed.
I understand that there were a few dickish, coke-fuelled outbursts in his youth [which were all later rescinded], but despite these and his at-times controversial presentation and lifestyle, I have never heard or read about anyone saying that they hated David Bowie. I obviously wasn’t around for the more notorious and gender/cosmically ambiguous eras of his evolution so can’t speak with any authority, but I get the impression that he was SO different, SO unusual, that he provoked more confusion and bafflement than condemnation.
In the late 80’s, he turned away from the commercial focus that he had adopted and moved back towards being the Artist. While it didn’t bring him the laudits that he had earned in recent years, it was truer to his own sense of what he wanted to be as a musician and a person, and that was what was important to him.
My experience of Bowie was that he always seemed to have been striving towards discovering exactly what it was to be the best version of himself; trying something out, taking the best of it and the lessons it taught, then discarding the rest and moving on. He always came across as good humoured, honest, thoughtful and utterly, utterly grounded.
Even into his 60’s, when he could quite justifiably relax and put his feet up, he was not a man to ride his previous successes. His musical style was constantly evolving, and in the 90’s he largely retired the back-catalogue of hits that he could have continued playing and flogging for cash; it wasn’t what he wanted, so it wasn’t what he did.
As someone who is increasingly uncomfortable with being valued on my looks and appearance, I have really tried over the last few years to steer away from using physical attractiveness as the measure of the admiration I have for other people. However, with Bowie it is frankly unavoidable. Especially early on, a massive part of the stage persona was all about the visual, and he was quite simply one of the most beautiful, striking, captivating men I have ever laid my eyes upon.
Since his death, I have learned that he twice turned down the offer of honours from the Queen, because he didn’t want them. They meant nothing to him and they weren’t what he was making music for. He requested that after his death, he should be cremated with no fuss, no ceremony, no family, friends or media around him.
All things considered, David Bowie was the kind of human being that I prefer to have around, and that I try to be.
He released a new album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday. I had no idea he had even been working on new music, so it was a delightful surprise. It’s since become apparent that it was made with the knowledge of his impending death, and based on the one track I have heard, Lazarus, it seems to also be his goodbye.
I of course bought Blackstar. It’s been sat on the shelf under my PC. I am not even close to being ready to listen to it yet.
Goodbye David, you beautiful, glorious, most human of alien creatures.