“Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now”
-David Bowie-“Lazarus”, from Blackstar, the album released on his 69th birthday, two days before he died.
The padded envelope came without a note or a return address, but according to postage and markings, it had come from Thailand, and it was addressed to me. Inside was a jersey style t-shirt with a picture of the Goblin King on the front. It was an odd gift. Anyone who knows me even marginally well knows I’m more than a casual Bowie fan, but I’ve always been pretty indifferent to Labyrinth. Even as a kid, I was never swept under its spell like so many of my peers. At 13, perhaps I was just a bit too old (and prematurely cynical) for the child-like wonder of it, but not old enough to really understand who David Bowie was beyond the “Let’s Dance“, “Modern Love,” and “China Girl” videos that MTV played on heavy rotation in its early days (though in hindsight, I do find it hard to believe that at the very least, 13 year-old me wasn’t completely enamored with 16 year-old Jennifer Connelly–sadly, I was clueless about nearly everything back then.)
After some asking around, I discovered that my brother had bought it off Etsy and sent it to me for my birthday. He knows I love Bowie, of course, and the Goblin King was probably referencing shared childhood memories that seem a bit cloudy now. I think he was also making fun of me a little. Either for being too cool, or because the Goblin King is ridiculous, or both. Either way, the shirt is fucking awesome, and I love it, and every time I wear it, I get streams of compliments. I mean, apparently people of all stripes unironically love the Goblin King! Go figure. Anyway, I’m wearing it right now, and I haven’t taken it off since I learned of Bowie’s death late Sunday night (which I could hardly believe, and am still not totally sure I believe). Cosmically, according to Facebook, that shirt arrived at my house on December 10, 2015, exactly one year before the great Starman passed into the next dimension.
“This ain’t rock n roll… this is genocide.”
– “Diamond Dogs”
The Goblin King. The Thin White Duke. Bowie is undisputed rock royalty, though in 2003, unlike his peers Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John, he did turn down the formal offer of knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, saying “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. It’s not what I spent my life working for.” Right? After all, he was already the king of the freaks, the kooks, the queers, the outcasts, the weirdos, the mad ones, the pan-sexual, the gender-fluid, and the artists, and he’d paved a way through rock and pop and art and fashion for a beautiful army of outsider fans steeped in radical acceptance. Not only were they okay being different, they were clearly cooler than everybody else. As rock n roll grew in its early days, and got wilder and more far out, Bowie was always wilder and further out than everybody else. So far out, that he quickly embodied the Starman persona, a being so unlike the rest, that he was literally an alien. An “alien prince”, as Lady Gaga, one of his many contemporary acolytes, referred to him in 2013, when mulling her daily mantra: “What would Bowie do?”
What indeed would Bowie do? Well, all of it really. Music, acting, fashion, design, art. He was at the forefront of all of it at one time or another. He shrugged off the “genius” label that seemed so easy to drape over him as so many points in his career. As he told Nina Simone, during one of their long talks when they were spending a great deal of time together in 1974: “What’s wrong with you is you were gifted—you have to play. Your genius overshadows the money, and you don’t know what to do to get your money, whereas I wasn’t a genius, but I planned, I wanted to be a rock-and-roll singer and I just got the right formula.” He was being modest, of course, though perhaps sincere, yet most anyone who appreciates his work will likely still call him an artistic genius in its least hyperbolic sense. Yet, it was clear from the beginning that there was something very cultivated about him, something “formulaic.” Not formulaic in its usual sense, because he was the one who invented the formula. But he was anything but thrown together. A cabaret performer turned rock singer, he married the wildness and immediacy of rock n roll with theatrical craft and grandeur. A living, breathing, pissing, fucking rock opera.
He was a master of metamorphosis. His identity warped and shaped over so many years, and it’s hard to say whether he was a chameleon, as he was creating the medium as often as he was blending in with it. During that first masterful epic sweep of albums, from his self-titled first album in 1967 up until the early 1980s, 14 or 15 in all, depending on whether you decide to count “Let’s Dance” (I do), he struck one iconic pose after another, transforming from one unforgettable persona, with its own unforgettable music, to another, leaving behind one of the most consistently brilliant musical arcs in the history of pop music. And that’s just the beginning of his career. He released twelve more albums following that, all hit or miss, some derivative and half-assed, others brilliant, and numerous gems strewn throughout them all. I remember saying to someone at some point during the 90s, when he seemed to be releasing a lot of less than stellar albums, “David Bowie can do whatever the fuck he wants. After what he’s already given the world, he could put out nothing but albums of him farting and blowing his nose, and I wouldn’t bat an eye.”
Of course, he didn’t need my permission. David Bowie has always done whatever the fuck he wants.
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
but he thinks he’d blow our minds”
I first encountered David Bowie either as the dryly hilarious jewel thief who puts a gun in Jeff Goldblum’s mouth in Into the Night, or in the quote from “Changes” that opens The Breakfast Club, both films that were released in 1985. I was 12. I had probably heard his songs before, and been vaguely aware of him as the Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane of yore, but at the time those ancient personas probably seemed tame compared to bands like Motley Crue, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, and the rest of the wild, androgynous 80s rock pantheon. Little did I know that he was their direct forebear, and without his legacy, rock as I knew it then would likely never have existed.
It wasn’t until I was about 15 that I first got a hold of the Changes greatest hits cassette, and played it until the tape literally wore out. That was a common theme with certain Bowie albums. I played them until they wore out, and each one ended up defining whole eras of my life. My freshman year of college was all Hunky Dory, so many sad, longing days, filled with splintery sunlight and an unrequited crush on the girl who lent it to me. There was the night drinking Night Train with Punk Rock English Scott in the dorm hallway, blasting “Diamond Dogs” over and over. “Fuckin hell, that’s a good song!” A few years later, it was nothing but Low, as I tried to write a play about the grand themes of love and art and eternity (themes I knew dick about), strung out on yet another girl, and failing all my classes. My re-discovery of Ziggy Stardust when I worked in a record store a few years later, how it made me feel so much less lost than I was, and I wrote a whole (terrible) novella based on the song “Five Years.” Later on, those languorous, sweet San Francisco summer days, with Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers as the eternal soundtrack.
In every band I ever played in, Bowie was always the unspoken, greatest goal, even if it was never reachable. That mix of anthemic guitar hooks, wild, poppy weirdness, smoldering cool, dance-ability, and theatrics was certainly my ideal jam. We never quite got there, and few spectators would probably suss out the influence, but we did occasionally knock out a sultry, acoustic version of “Modern Love”, with Brenda, the biggest Bowie fanatic I know, belting out the gorgeous, heart-crushed vocals. It was always a show-stopper.
One of the biggest things I have learned from Bowie’s passing is how massive his fan base is, and how many people truly love him, all over the world. It’s not just the freaks and the outsiders, but so many people who love him for all that he has contributed with his art. Of course, with his death, a number of the ugly memories have resurfaced as well, and indeed they are part of his legacy as much as anything else. It is important to address the dark spots in a legacy as much as the others, but at the moment those are being written about by smarter and more qualified people than myself. I certainly welcome further discussion, but all I will say about that now is that mourning and paying tribute to an artist and a person by no means implies sainthood, nor does it absolve any wrongdoing. It merely means to honor the parts of the life and the person that were loved. And there were many of those.
David Bowie had cancer for a year and a half. He kept it secret from nearly every one, even close friends such as Brian Eno, who didn’t realize until after he died, that his last email message, sent a few weeks ago, was saying goodbye. He made an entire album (brilliant by many accounts, I’ve only heard a few of the songs), while sick with cancer, as well as accompanying videos, whose overarching theme was death and sickness, and released it on his birthday. People barely had time to absorb it before he died two days later.
If that’s not cosmic grace, I don’t know what is. If that is not the most David Bowie way to go out, short of stepping into a silver spaceship and rocketing up into the Milky Way, I’m not sure I really understand this universe. I have heard echoed by others my own sense that David Bowie would never actually die. In his later years, he seemed so radiant, so immortal, so deeply alien, that it still seems like it could be a hoax. But it does appear that he is gone. His heart has stopped, but the beat indeed goes on.
Goodnight Starman. Thank you for the music.
“Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me”