One of the worst things about life is that you eventually outlive most of your heroes. This causes you to realize how human they really were, no matter how large they seemed on the screen or how overwhelming their voice might have been over the radio.
I think that many of us thought that David Bowie, the artist we now realize was only too human, would live on for many years more. Yesterday morning, we learned that was not the case.
So many of us have a Bowie story – for four generations, it seems as though he was one of those artists who called out to the oddity in each of us. There was something always beautiful in his face and his demeanour, this quality of androgyny which made some deeply uncomfortable and which others worshipped.
He knew how to take aspects of his being which others would conceal and make them public in a way which was aesthetically pleasing and allowed for connection with others. Through his various personae, he offered a sense of belonging to many who had been going it alone for far too long.
What was remarkable about Bowie was that he was able to achieve what he did without losing popular appeal. For each year since 1967, he was the voice of the youth, even as he headed into his late 60s. He was one of the people who made being an outsider – especially a queer outsider – a little less lonely.
I remember the first album that I sought out – Hunky Dory. I had been entranced by the ‘Life on Mars’ video, featuring an orange-haired Bowie in a blue suit, accentuating his anomaly of eyes with different colours. It had a quality unlike anything I had been hearing on the radio, and this frightened me slightly.
When I heard ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ for the first time, I knew that this was something I had been looking for. The album cover, like so many images of him, featured an image which was at once Old Hollywood and new pop, existing in a world where ambiguity was okay. Bowie’s explicit blurring of gender lines and sexual standards made being a young queer man so much easier.
Music is one of the more intuitive of arts. The pieces of music which we consider to be among the most moving we encounter touch us on a level which words and images rarely do. It is because of this that music is the language of the soul. The music which calls out to the outcasts remains the most moving of all, imprinting itself on the minds of the listeners for years to come, so that they can remember where they first heard it and even conjure the scene like a magic trick.
In the hours after his death was announced, I found my Facebook feed turning into a memorial wall, rarely broken by advertisements and memes, as each friend poured out their comments on Bowie’s legacy and how much his music meant to them. The love of these people for their icon reminds me of the devoted followers of a saint after martyrdom.
His last album, Blackstar, became a final gift, and ‘Lazarus’ – the final single he released, just days before he died – became his last statement, preparing us for our grief while reassuring us that, like the biblical character of the same name, he would live on.
When certain artists pass from this world, they leave behind a world which seems to glow a little less brightly than the day before. The music remains, but a melancholy hint seeps in to every song.
As Ziggy Stardust rotates on my turntable, there is a sense – now that Ziggy has gone back to Mars – that the angst of his youth takes on a new sense of finality in the last notes. I thought about how, after the death of Bowie’s friend and occasional collaborator Lou Reed, a song like ‘Perfect Day’ took on a new meaning, in which a love song became a requiem for the late artist.
We find ourselves now listening to the same tracks again and again, still finding the same music, but something has changed inside us. I suspect that ‘Heroes’ will go on to develop the same air – still beautiful as ever.
In the final analysis, though I am still greatly saddened, I am reminded of something that a director I know put on Facebook: ‘If you’re sad today, just remember the world is 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.’ For this, I will always have undying gratitude.