To be clear, this is not an obituary.
This is the work of a grief-stricken mind after learning of the passing of a personal hero.
I was woken up in the middle of the night with the news that David Bowie was dead, a fact so startling that I sat bolt upright and declared, “He’s not dead. He went back to his home planet.”
Only a few hours earlier, I had been discussing Bowie’s new album with a friend, remarking on the brilliance of his music videos for Blackstar and Lazarus and wondering aloud if a tour was imminent. Now I am faced with the loss of a guiding light. I’m not sure if there is any rhyme or reason to the heroes we pick, if the universe guides them toward us or if we stumble upon them by accident, whether they know how deeply they affect our daily lives, or whether they care. When I learned that Alexander McQueen committed suicide, I wept for three days. I find it hard to write about him to this day because his work so moved me that it is literally the reason I started to care about fashion. There are few individuals that I hold in such regard, but David Bowie is numbered among them.
For me, and millions of others, Bowie was the artist who gave a voice to the strange ones, to those who lived outside of the norm, who created without fear. Bowie came from Brixton, a thin, androgynous rake of a lad with funny teeth and one eye permanently widened by an enlarged pupil that came as the result of a punch to the eye in 1962. He was gifted. He was odd. He had no interest in engaging with social norms or mores. He was The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke, Jareth, and, most recently, Lazarus. He was the king of a science fiction universe of his own making. He was the most singularly intriguing individual of our time.
While that might sound like hyperbole, consider Bowie’s myriad contributions to music, fashion, and culture. For starters, the Western soundscape would be bleak and barren without his presence. On Vice, writer Zachary Lipez summed it up best:
“Without him, there would be no punk, no glam, no post-punk, no hair metal, no goth, no Brit-pop, no new wave, no freak folk, no new romantics, no (as we know it) blue-eyed soul, no (as we know it) art-pop. Most of the original genres we love and most of the revivals of the genres we love would be gone, too. No glitter, no too-tight pants, no wonderful, wonderful haircuts (and therefore no Nick Cave or Robert Smith). No heels on men, hell, possibly less heels on women. No Kate Bush and no Maxwell. Without Heroes, no U2, no Coldplay, no Arcade Fire, no blessed and absurd grandeur to get us through the prosaic. No Pulp – who would have taught Jarvis to move? No Talk Talk. No Blue Nile or Japan. No Labyrinth, The Hunger, or The Linguini Incident. While we’re talking about the vision, the humor, and, forgive me, lust for life: no Zoolander. No Bauhaus or Smiths; without a slinky and elfin arm around Mick Ronson while singing ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops, there’s no Morrissey, Marc Almond, Boy George, or George Michael. No Outkast or Kanye West, I’d be willing to bet, and I’d be willing to bet they’d agree. Iggy Pop would’ve died or found that just crawling through glass tends to yield diminishing returns. Nile Rodgers maybe (probably) would be a footnote in his own dream. Eno would have disappeared into atmospherics and useless art.”
He defined a new generation of rock music, spit-shining the genre with glamour and a unique stage presence that many mimicked, but none could claim as their own. He was a multi-instrumentalist, an innovator, a fervored musical collaborator, a lyrical genius. His career spanned decades, and he was actively making music until his untimely death. He was the great equalizer who worked with everyone from Iggy Pop to Tina Turner. As The New Yorker stated, he built bridges between different worlds.
To fashion, he gave a bold new look that embraced androgyny, mystery, and role play. In our age of facsimile and appropriation, Bowie was a true original – the first to openly wear flamboyant clothes, coif and dye his hair, and paint his face. In his words, “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.” He was an alien, sent to earth to comfort us with messages of peace, love, and, yes, rebellion against the powers that be. The New York Times characterized his contribution to fashion as “indelible”, and spoke with designers who named Bowie as a predominant influence on their work. As a fashion icon, he exhibited plenty of self-awareness, each experimentation and permutation exuding a central thesis that was married to whatever project he was currently working on. Bowie defined personal branding before that was ever a term.
His contributions to culture at large dove-tail with his work in music and fashion, but looking back, his passion for equality was ahead of its time. There was the time he called out MTV for not playing black music, and the time he told Bryant Gumbel that rappers were leading the creative class (which, in turn, inspired his status as an unlikely hip-hop icon). Beyond speaking up for the disenfranchised, he was – by every account, from the Vatican to outerspace – an individual beloved for his kind, generous, compassionate soul. He worked exhaustively with non-profit organizations like Live Aid, Keep a Child Alive, Every Mother Counts, and many more. Even after his death, his independent label honored his charitable spirit by promising proceeds from January sales of his latest album to Cancer Research UK.
Bowie’s individuality and singularity comes to bear, not only in his life, but also in his death. While news of the cancer spreading through his body was kept from the general public, Bowie’s lamentations on life and death on his final album Blackstar become clear in hindsight. His swan song came in two parts: first in the music video for the title track Blackstar and again in the music video for Lazarus, which begins with “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” and in which he is depicted as a man on his deathbed. While Bowie kept the secret of his failing health hidden, the foreshadowing of Lazarus couldn’t be more obvious, making this album a moving epitaph. Music producer and longtime friend of Bowie Tony Visconti called his death “a work of art” and his final album “a parting gift” for his fans. The premeditation of his final act is both chilling and inspiring. If anyone knows how to approach death, not with fear, but with theater and ingenious orchestration, it is Bowie.
The first time I ever heard his voice, I was a young girl raised in a strict religious household. The strains to “Suffragette City” reached my ears by accident as I flipped through radio stations, but its rallying cry forced an image into my head, one of a schoolgirl smoking a cigarette, her aura permeated by the insouciant cool that is a byproduct of teenage rebellion. She was someone I knew I wanted to be, because she defined my own struggles with authority and difficulties fitting in. “Don’t lean on me, man, cause you can’t afford the ticket,” he sang, and my brain was set on fire. Bowie continued to define my youth with his words and images. “She’s so swishy in her satin and tat…” “We could be heroes…” “Is it any wonder you’re too cool to fool…” “Let all the children boogie…” I came alive in his gravitational pull.
Like millions of others around the world, I am bereft by the sudden loss of someone whom I truly loved, someone who changed me with his creative work and who helped forge my identity.
Goodbye, Starman. See you in the sky.