I often wondered what it would be like when David Bowie died.
Why? Because the thought of it was so utterly hard to come to terms with. How could Bowie ever die? He seemed to transcend every medium in which he worked. He was faintly alien. He seemed too famous to die. in the same way that I don’t think you could every really process a four-minute warning, the sheer size of Bowie’s death seemed too big to comprehend.
Of course it wasn’t – inured as we are to death as a way of life it was predictably easy. For me it was my wife gently imparting the news as I took my first few blinks of the day and, as she left for work, and without really knowing why, I felt a single tear roll down my cheek.
I knew of his heart problems and rumours of his ill health but three days before I’d watched the video for Lazarus and thought little of it. It did not strike me – absurdly – as the epitaph it so obviously is.
Much has been written about Bowie over the last week. Increasingly there’s more and more on the reaction to his death – celebrity has always been a shortcut for people to project their own self-importance and advance their way of earning money. The passing of someone important is increasingly another route by which self-proclaimed pop culture experts, dullards and trolls can claim some meagre attention and bank a few pathetic quids.
That is how the media works these days but it’s important to remember what’s driving it. Our demand for more. Us and the media finding some sort of union in our shared need for more Bowie. I’ve rinsed Bowie’s back catalogue this week – on Spotify and Youtube – and read maybe two dozen articles.
I watched three tributes to him – the BBC’s David Bowie: Five Years is the best that was repeated this week – and I’ve thought a lot about what Bowie meant to me and to other people.
Beyond his yin-and-yang eyes part of Bowie’s other-wordliness was his shapeshifting ability – apparently pretty much the agreed line on most tributes I’ve read this week – and that’s part of what would always make his death hard to process. When one Bowie was used up, another would come along.
It may sound flip but it puts me in mind of another chameleonic – and very British – cultural artefact of the last 50 years. The same man, but not really – connected by a conviction, brilliance, memory. But a different man all the same; regenerating.
Try to connect The Thin White Duke with the Millennial Bowie – all celebrity cameos and New York TV studios. Or the Serious Moonlight Bowie with the button-eyes character he plays in both videos from Blackstar. Low and Tin Machine. It’s almost impossible – almost impossible – to believe it’s the same person. Ziggy and Earthling; Brixton, Berlin and New York. They’re different people.
Yes Bowie did a few adverts, he was a visionary when it came to music videos, the internet – and I could invoke all of them them in explaining what he’s doing on this blog. But did anyone ever have such control over the way they projected themselves? Such power to alter people’s perceptions? When I was a child I’m not sure I even understood that Bowie was a real person – he was a construct s much as Kirk or The Doctor or Robin of Sherwood.
As a teenager I remember discovering all these different facets of Bowie I’d never really understood. When he moved into weird new directions – the sort of industrial dance he ventured into during the 90s – I raided his back catalogue. If you ever tired of Bowie there was Other Bowie.
Just at the point where he was approaching Macca-fication, the terminal velocity of over-expsoure and dulling familiarity – much as Jagger has and Rod Stewart and Elton already had – Bowie removed himself completely from public life. The long hair and the little Lennon specs and expensive dental work – and many chat show appearances where he’d sing Heroes again – were the nadir for me.
Not Tin Machine or Little Wonder, but the very real possibility that Bowie might simply become a vaguely pitiful irrelevance: Hollywooded and New Yorked and Glastonburied into background noise; Jonathon Rossed and Jimmy Falloned into the mainstream of ‘best since Scary Monsters’ and ‘living legend’ indulgence. There was even the possibility that Bowie might become a little bit embarrassing.
One of the things that’s evident about him from Let’s Dance onwards – around the same time that his music began a slow slide into not being very good – is he seemed like one of the nicest guys on the planet, never mind the world of celebrity. He proved himself with almost 15 solid years of incredible music – and another 15 of stuff rarely less than interesting, with gems sprinkled amongst the ashes.
The Next Day was like a slap in the face when it came – after ten years of him simply being part of the furniture – but it’s a bit unfocussed. Blackstar is finally something that seems worthy of him. That’s something that seems to be said of nearly every album since Let’s Dance but his self-imposed retreat and subsequent death have magnified its meaning.
Distance has been kind to Bowie. If we’d had an album every two years over the last decade I wonder how we’d view his last album – and his legacy. His disappearance from public life ten years ago was enforced by a heart attack – the first of many if rumours are to be believed.
And if it weren’t for that 2004 coronary – if, instead, we’d had his slow slide into prime-time sofas, gleaming in the sort of rude health that being very rich can often bring, I wouldn’t have begrudged him that. By all accounts he found an equanimity previously absent since his arteries made an intervention. He was just a man after all and was just as entitled to enjoy his life as anyone else.
Was there one other person across these last 45 years who was present in so many people’s consciousnesses – a little Blackstar in their minds – from his appearances on television, in film and over 25 albums? Who meant so much to so many people; who was so pivotal at so many nexus points in music? The influence of Fripp and Eno and Nile Rogers is impossible to deny even now.
Watching people connect the various Bowies – a man who worked with Luther Vandross and Trent Reznor; Queen and the Stones; Iggy and Lou; the guy from Nick Roeg, Jim Henson and Tony Scott films; Live Aid and Labyrinth; New York, Japan, Germany – has been fascinating over the last week.
There were many people who simply didn’t realise that the same guy wrote Space Oddity, Rebel Rebel, Young Americans, Heroes, Ashes To Ashes, Let’s Dance… and why should they? They’re as different to one another as the output of completely different people.
After 35 years living a life that may have been captured and documented in some way on virtually ever day of it he disappeared, only to return at the eleventh hour to choreograph his own departure. It’s truly a life and death of our age, yet likely to be unique. Even at the end Bowie had ultimate control over how and when we perceived him.
And then the unthinkable happened. The shock, the denial and the inevitable social media implosion in its many glories and horrors. But chief among the reactions a sort of disbelief. It felt harder, more meaningful but – sooner or later – it did pass. Even Bowie wasn’t too big to fail in the end. And we slowly assimilated his death after a few days and comforted ourselves with his music.
Seeing people attempting to comprehend the news that he is gone has been a fascinating experience, but I wish I’d never had to find out what it was like the day David Bowie died.