Mourning the passing of the inimitable—and unforgettable—David Bowie
"I’m sure you’ve heard, Bowie’s dead?”
That was the message I received from my friend Brian at 2:30 a.m. Monday morning. I was actually in bed, extremely early for me, and had not heard. My first thought was, “No way, it’s another of those ‘Dead Celebrity’ hoaxes the kids seem so fond of…”
Nonetheless, I jumped up and fired up the computer (I hate trying to “internet” on my phone, it’s smallish and my eyes aren’t so good. Also, I like real keyboards.) Sure enough, David Bowie (né Jones) had passed from cancer.
I need to establish something right away. I’m in my mid-40s and a great many artists I have admired and enjoyed have shuffled off this mortal coil in my lifetime. Douglas Adams comes to mind, for instance—what a loss that was—but I cannot remember any other time when the death of a celebrity affected me so much.
I sat there in my recliner, laptop aglow in an otherwise dark house, and started playing Bowie music, and I wept a little. No big, melodramatic tears, mind you, just a little damp-eyed sentimentality.
Monday morning I fully expected to see plenty about his passing, but good lord…page after page after page of comments, and most of them seeming to express precisely what I’m trying to now; the man and his music had meant quite a lot to people, maybe more than they had reckoned.
“I’ve never seen this kind of outpouring over social media for anyone,” was one friend’s comment. Neither have I, and I’ve been thinking about that all day.
“I didn’t know so many of my friends were fans,” said another. Neither did I.
But you know, I don’t know that I ever specifically thought of myself as a Bowie fan. I never owned a poster, never dressed up like any of his many personas, never saw a live show (damn it). I own three of his movies, though—“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Hunger” and “Labyrinth”—and about half his albums. I can name dozens of his songs that I really like and I have a favorite, in as much as anyone could pick one favorite from such a large, varied and brilliant catalog.
“Ashes to Ashes” is it for me. The tune is basically Bowie’s farewell to his self-destruction, but my love affair with it marked the beginning of mine. It was a very low point in my life, on the verge of sinking lower still, and the only comfort I found in those days was in being very drunk at the bar around a bunch of other people who were equally miserable and drunk. I’d put five or 10 bucks in the jukebox and play whatever my friends wanted to hear, but always I started and ended with “Ashes to Ashes.”
It might seem funny to be so attached to a song that became a personal favorite as I was sliding swiftly into oblivion, but I understand why. At the time I found a melancholy comfort in it, thinking, “Well, I don’t guess I’m the first to be here...”
Many years later, after I realized I could either reinvent myself or die, the song served as a reminder of where I had been, what it was like, how bad I thought things were just before they got a whole hell of a lot worse and how far away all that seems from where I am now. It not only got better, it got better than I would ever have dreamed possible, and hearing that song now makes me want to reach out to my younger self and tell him so.
I wish I could write my own “Ashes to Ashes,” my own farewell to the darkness and excess and self-destruction, but for all my musical efforts, I can’t. Besides, I don’t need to, Bowie already wrote it for me—and for you, if that song in particular resonates with you. If it doesn’t, there’s probably one (at least) that does, and I think that’s why his passing is being especially mourned by so many.
Here was a man who made music for almost 50 years, constantly evolving so that “Bowie eras” are a distinct and recognizable thing, and yet it was all of it, every bit, unmistakably him. That’s a long time and a lot of music, and a great many people share deep emotional connections with those songs.
Blackstar, his final album, released on his birthday just two days before his death, is just as edgy and wonderful as anything I’ve heard. I heard theories at first—it has since been confirmed by his producer—that the album was very intentionally a farewell from a dying maestro to his fans, and that is so beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, so distinctly Bowie, that all I can think is, “Here was the life of an artist, well-lived.”
There will never be another like him.