Saturday, January 30, 2016

David Bowie: Life On Earth

I've written before about my relationship to David Bowie's music and art so this need not be a retrospective piece. It's rather an attempt to describe the size and shape of the hole left behind by his sudden and shocking death.

Sudden, that is, to us who weren't aware of his 18 months of living with cancer and its treatment. And shocking because Bowie had been so incredibly present ever since that glorious morning in 2013 when Where Are We Now appeared on our Vimeo feeds as if from the ether. 

Almost ten years of near-silence preceded The Next Day and one thing that brilliant album threw in sharp relief was the low level yearning we had all been living with during that time without Bowie. I can detect the sense that he understood our longing, even if only a little. He could have called the song Where Am I Now?, after all. Now we must contemplate the rest of our lives without him. Part of the shock is also that he was one man who contained multitudes for us and now all of that is gone. Unlike The Beatles, there is no truncated version of Bowie to whom we can all cling, no Paul or Ringo to offer the slightest bit of solace. 

I realize that I'm using "we" more than usual. I don't deign to speak for others, but in the days immediately following Bowie's death I found myself stereotyping madly, searching each silhouette that passed to see if they fit into the classification "Bowie fans." A confident walk, a crisp fashion choice, headphones, good shoes ("Your boots are shit," Marc Bolan told Bowie the first time they met), just searching for any clue that someone felt the way I do about David Robert Jones of Brixton.

This of course was a fool's game because I long ago made the decision to mostly keep my artistic leanings on the inside. In high school when my friends were dying their hair, giving themselves piercings and jailhouse tattoos, and painting their Doc Martens with nail polish, I continued on getting my haircuts from a guy called Paris at Gimbels East and wearing jeans along with worn button down shirts passed down from my father. You wouldn't know from looking at me that Bowie, Pere Ubu and Joy Division were bleeding from my Walkman, not to mention Hendrix and Coltrane. You had to get to know me to know what I was into.

So why should I expect any different from passersby on a street in 2016? It was really just a shellshocked symptom of the loss I felt, the need to be in a group of likeminded people, to believe that I was surrounded by people that got it. Based on my initial skim of social media, I think other people felt the same, hence the "we."

This also reflects the "Bowie spoke to freaks and outsiders" point of view, which is certainly part of the story. "Give me your hands," he implores on Rock'N'Roll Suicide, "You're not alone!" Hearing that, the cozy strum of Soul Love, the tour de force of Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise), Everyone Says Hi, or any number of other songs, gives me a warm glow of inclusion and belonging. Maybe you feel it, too. And never forget, that acceptance is a two-way street. We who "get it" took Bowie into our hearts and our lives without dismissing any of his quirks as simply "weird." He showed us a way to live and by going along with it, we showed him a way to continue.

Bowie also demonstrated how far out you could go and still be in - not just popularity-wise, but in the human race itself. Recording Low at the tail end of a two-year bender that destroyed his health and probably contributed to the end of his first marriage, he managed to make a break-up album that was both optimistic and futuristic - no blood on his tracks - yet still anchored in emotion. 

Thinking of those cut-outs I examined on the street I also think about others like me, who allowed the various shapes and shades of Bowie's looks to stand in for our inner states, like an action painting of our souls. And while we may not have dressed like him, we took note of the perfect gesture, the well-timed movement, the calibrated gaze, and allowed them to infiltrate us, changing the way we entered a room, sat in a chair, moved on the dance floor. This was the lore of years of study - mime, kabuki, Elvis - passed down and distilled for our daily use.

So while I sometimes sought the collective experience in those first days of grieving, there was also a part of me that wanted to be alone with the sorrow. I stayed off Spotify, where all listening is public, and out of the comment fields, listening mainly to bootlegs and thinking about how I would write this piece. I was somewhat surprised by this response so I went deeper into self-examination. It stopped me in my tracks when I realized the connection between my first child's short life and Bowie's truncated renaissance. My son Jacob (who also had a January birthday) died at 2 1/2 from cancer. Though there is no comparison between my love for Jacob and my attachment to Bowie, there are parallels in the joy I felt when my son was born, so long awaited, and the excitement Bowie's return engendered. 

Then...crushing disappointment and sadness, the air let out of the balloon for good. When Bowie died, that sense of deflation felt very familiar, harmonizing uncomfortably with those dark days of 1999 when my son succumbed to his disease. This realization helped me switch between public and private modes of bereavement around Bowie. I imagine it's possible that there is some other public figure who could inspire such thoughts and feelings - for others, not for me - but I can't think of who that could be. Once again, I suspect I'm not the only one feeling this way, which is why I'm sharing these deeply personal investigations. 

The concert bootlegs did help, and still do. Naturally, my usual source made several additional recordings available: Budapest 1997 (interesting), Paris 1990 (his voice uncharacteristically shot), and two Ziggy- era gems, one from London's Rainbow Theater in 1972, and one from Radio City Music Hall in 1973. I really gravitated to the latter as not only is it an extraordinary performance, but because of where it took place it's very easy for me to picture the surroundings. It's also an audience recording and I find myself relating to the little crowd around the taper. This is my virtual collective experience, listening to these serious Bowie fans react the way I might have had I been there. 

"When's the album coming out?" one of them says after the Spiders play another song from Aladdin Sane, which had yet to be released. "Wow," another says after a beautiful take on Space Oddity. At the end of the show, after the encore of Rock'N'Roll Suicide, one of them simply states: "Unbelievable. Unbelievable." But my favorite moment immediately precedes an intense version of The Supermen. After a spare and spectacular solo performance of Jacques Brel's My Death, we hear some electronic swoops and swooshes causing the crowd to start cheering wildly. "Oh, God," one of my new friends exclaims and another says, "I've never seen anything like it!"

No, he hadn't, and neither had we. Nor shall we, ever again. 


  1. Great post. It reminds me of the level of self-reflection that I always experience after listening to Coltrane!