I didn’t think I’d write about David Bowie. There are so many people who are more devout and knowledgeable than I am. A few weeks ago I thought I’d have nothing to add to everyone's tsunami of grief.
But the night he died I couldn’t go to sleep. It was such a shock. True to form, Bowie kept his illness a secret. He’d released his latest album two days earlier to acclaim. On his sixty-ninth birthday. Of all rock star icons, he seemed immortal. He was unearthly and intangible. Like a mirage, never real to begin with.
I went on Twitter and listened to the people I follow and respect write one-hundred-forty-character tributes and prose-poems of admiration. I read old articles, I watched concert videos and songs my friends posted from YouTube. Twitter is wonderful at times like this. It was a late-night wake for a man whom almost everyone revered. I say "almost" to cover my ass, but I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t respect him. We all held invisible hands and shared thoughts, feelings and remembrances of him. It was quiet, sad and beautiful.
I texted my friend Christiana who had schooled me on everything Bowie when we were in high school. Even though it was 4am on the East Coast, I knew she’d be up and she was.
We reminisced. We watched part of a concert Bowie had performed for the firefighters and policemen who served during 9/11. He sat at a toy piano singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” while a montage of New York City scenes played behind him. There was no grandstanding, no self-indulgent emoting. It was apolitical, egoless and simple. He sang to say thank you to them. That was it. And because he was unsentimental the song was moving beyond belief.
That night Twitter engaged in the best kind of competition: “Isn’t this Bowie video great?” “Yeah! but watch this!” "Yes! That's amazing, but look at this." I heard “Station to Station” for the first time thanks to someone I follow. I downloaded it and danced in my kitchen at three in the morning. The next day I listened BLACKSTAR. I had to pull over to the side of the road when I heard “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Knowing what we know now, the song is devastating and brave. It must have been heart-wrenching for him to write but also imperative.
I don’t pretend to understand all of David Bowie’s alchemy, but after many days thinking this is what I can articulate halfway. He was artificial but uncontrived. He was never out of fashion because he created fashion. His music was timeless. I shouldn’t even use the past tense because his songs will prove their own permanence. He was an approachable superhuman. Despite his stylized, aloof appearance he projected warmth in concert. Sometimes he was grotesque but he was always beautiful. He had an elementary sense of drama. Alien strangeness. One green eye, one brown.
I could never put my finger on him. As soon as I became comfortable with one of his personas, Bowie slipped away from me like mercury. He claimed his songs weren’t autobiographical and never would be, but once again he tricked us. BLACKSTAR is intimate and personal. It’s his own retrospective he allowed us to experience fully only after he died. Ironically it was his best selling album. I imagine Bowie Cheshire Cat-smiling.
He was a great actor and he was very funny. All his performances, dramatic or comedic, revealed an oblique sense of humor. His correspondences and interviews displayed his wry wit repeatedly. It seemed like he could do anything.
Bowie even handled aging well which most Pop Stars' egos won't allow. Case in point—though it pains me to say—Sting. Bowie’s innate dignity, intelligence and elegance wouldn't permit him to act the fool. Unlike many other musicians who travel to India for three months then add a sitar and "exotic" backup singers to their next album to look worldly, Bowie seamlessly and respectfully incorporated different forms of music into his own sound. He supported and promoted other artists. He simplified his look as he got older without losing his style. He never became a parody of himself.
I’ve felt David Bowie’s death more acutely and enduringly than when most celebrities pass. It's obvious I’m not alone. We've lost someone unique and that's painful and hard. Thank god we have an embarrassment of riches from him to soften the blow. We will marvel at Bowie’s songs for as long as we live and we are lucky he came for a brief visit to our little planet.