I’m still waiting for the hoax announcement.
My first memory of David Bowie is probably either Changes or Space Oddity, with its primitive video that I think used to play in that otherwise blank space between movies in the early days of cable circa 1980. When I was a few years older, there was the sequel to that song, Ashes to Ashes, and then the whole Let’s Dance period with Nile Rodgers, China Girl, and the homoerotic but somehow wholesome tease of Dancing in the Street with Mick Jagger. As a young teen, I liked all of this well enough—it was pop music and it was something more. It spoke to me in a way that Michael Jackson and Madonna did not, with a semi-cryptically articulated wisdom that would serve me then as a boy of 13 and now as a man, 30 years later. Bowie seemed to be saying that, to paraphrase his colleague, and in some way, mentor/mentee, Lou Reed, that no matter what, it was all right. We will all get lost somewhere, in space, in time, in our own egos. Alienation, silence imposed inside and out, what must sometimes seem like otherworldly urges—it’s all right. There are scary monsters out there and vast reaches of inimitable nothing, and it’s perfectly normal to dwell there. It’s also okay to dance.
What Bowie has fully meant to me over the past four decades, though, can’t be so easily summed up. He’s never left my life. A few months back I watched a BBC documentary called Five Years, which focused a lot on the late 70s and early 80s Bowie. The Plastic Soul and the Thin White Duke, Carlos Alomar and Brian Eno. I watched it wide-eyed at 4 am high on coffee and all alone. I immediately wrote a poem by scrawling it with one finger into my space-age and five-years-out-of-date smartphone. A couple hours later, I sent it to my friend, poet and teacher Mark Lamoureux, who was work bound on a train somewhere in the snowy American northeast, which as far as I was concerned was just as far away as Bowie’s Starman or Major Tom. I called the poem Berlin.
Much of the music I love is inseparable in my mind and my flesh from the very real people I love and have loved, and in so many discussions of art, perhaps especially that art which is deemed avant-garde, love seems old-fashioned, or at best a minor concern. I reject that. Just about 20 minutes ago, I got the first news of David Bowie’s passing from my friend Julia via Facebook tag. Such a strange and impersonal way to inform a loved one of another loved one’s death. But he was just David Bowie, always impossibly cool, and she knew he wouldn’t mind. I’ve known Julia for over 20 years and it’s easy to say that she is the best friend I’ve ever had. She’s also been difficult and petulant and distant and so have I. She’s also been wonderful (“You’re wonderful! Give me your hands!) and has mostly good taste in music. We first bonded over vinyl LPs, in someone else’s living room one winter evening. It was Elton John’s Rocket Man, and then Daniel. Later it was Jim Croce, who died in the sky at 30 years of age, who was born on this day in 1943, a full year before my own father, and four years before Bowie. It’s impossible to note the passing of an icon without noting how intertwined our lives become with others, some we will meet and love in the flesh, and others who inhabit the entire world, suffuse the planet. Some things, some people, some forces and presences are undeniable. David Bowie, in public, and I imagine in private, has been difficult and petulant and distant, too.
Whenever I hear Elton John or Jim Croce, and tonight, David Bowie, I think of Julia. I think also of past lovers, bosses I’ve hated, dead friendships and new ones. If I weren’t crying right now, I’d say it’s not really sad–it’s just how it goes. You get your chance, you do what you can. You find a place to stay, maybe a friend. Maybe, in Bowie’s case, a billion friends around the world.
As I type this, Freddie Mercury is singing “nothing really matters to me…” and it’s a beautifully false sentiment. To be beautiful, anyway, it must be false. Or maybe I’ve got it backwards.
For all the astounding music that the former David Jones would eventually produce, and perhaps in spite of it, Ziggy Stardust was always my jam. For starters, I am almost exactly as old as Ziggy. And it may have been the first CD I ever bought–remember CDs? I spent long days in the San Joaquin Valley, not quite 21, alone in a Navy barracks room, no AC, over 100 in the shade. I had no friends–the friends that I would soon make were still on a ship in the Persian Gulf at that time. I painted barracks rooms and did low-level maintenance, or stood nighttime watches, watching over exactly nothing because our barracks was almost completely empty on account of everybody being on the fucking ship except me. I would spin that Ziggy disc over and over on a star ship in my mind, or the almost-real parched earth that very literally surrounded me there in middle California. The opening blast of Ronson’s guitar on Moonage Daydream, and then the puzzlement, the outrageousness of those first words, at once ridiculous and sublime: “I’m an alligator! I’m a mama papa comin’ for you / I’m a space invader! I’ll be a rock and rollin’ bitch for you!” knocked me on my ass the first time I heard them and they still confound and just delight me to this day. I thought that Five Years was the doomy apocalypse at the end of my short life and was sure that I had just about as much time left—those long days and nights in the cracked dry farmland in the early 1990s smelled like horse shit and methamphetamine. The air was choked with cotton fibers and jet engine exhaust. Jackrabbits roamed. Gnats swarmed. Doom seemed imminent, and Ziggy Stardust was the ideal soundtrack to all that.
I never thought I’d outlive my beloved androgyne despite the fact he was old enough to be my father. You see, from a very early age, I was certain I’d be dead before the age of 40. I wasn’t worried about it, didn’t fear it, but felt it, and it never happened.
Now dead rock stars are piling up. Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone have been dead for years. Lou is dead. Lemmy died late last year—just a couple of weeks ago. Now our Ziggy.
I’ve made it three years past 40 and I guess that means I have work to do. It’ll continue to be sad work, but I hope I can confront it with patience, with charity, with an open heart and honesty, things I can’t really say I learned from David Bowie or from any rock and roll hero, because I’m not sure I’ve learned them yet. But they are things that I sometimes experienced in relationships I sometimes forged (and just as often destroyed) with the soundtrack that sounds like the 1970s, sounds like I’m five years old, dancing on the linoleum in stocking feet.
In the days that follow, we’ll read obituaries and retrospectives, think pieces, appreciations, backlash, even internet outrage or picayunish dismissals. I’ll stick with the people making art. I’ll stick with being awestruck. And in this way, quietly, comes love.