I titled this piece the way I would title a school assignment because this is something that’s hard to write about without following a form or without tumbling into cliché and I want to acknowledge that forms and clichés are going to happen in this piece because so much has been said and written about David Bowie, how could it not; because David Bowie was special to me perhaps not in the same way that he is special to many people but definitely with the same power, to the same extent and so I feel what they all feel (regardless if our thinking differs). I want my sentences to run on today because punctuation is the way I put an unorderly world into order and it seems to be totally out of line, and totally out of spirit, to organise the death of David Bowie.
Celebrity mourning is new terrain for me. I was too young to remember Kurt Cobain (who I also love) as alive. The myriad of celebrity deaths following barely registered, the most important ones are just there to mark time, like I know where I was when Michael Jackson died and it took me two days to find out because I was far away, like I know that I was young and silly enough for Princess Diana’s funeral to amuse me, just to think about her head rolling out of the coffin and into a weeping, adoring crowd. Actually, I’ve always had a nervous awkwardness around death, especially public grieving – I make jokes too soon that would never be funny later anyway. Public outpourings always seem so weird and I assume they are constructed out of politeness to those left behind because after all, you didn’t know Kurt or Michael or Diana, but actually you absolutely know some version of these people, the bit of them that you own because they are out there in the ether of fame. You own their light and you know not to think too much about the shadows.
When I found out David Bowie died, it was this morning and I said that I didn’t know he even had cancer and that wasn’t it impressive, then, that he had only just released a new album while he had cancer and was in the middle of dying. I feel bummed out, I feel I can claim emotions, I am sad, I think the world is better with him and worse without, but I wonder about the word ‘grief’. The thing that is different to David Bowie compared to any other celebrity is that he is the shadow, and out in the light we know Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom and Aladdin Insane and because this isn’t a test I don’t need to keep listing, nothing depends on this list, the list exists for the purpose of example, the point is that the actual David Bowie either doesn’t exist (I doubt it), or is completely preserved out of the public sphere because he existed there through characters. He might not be ours.
Which is particularly uncanny because he, or at least his music, lays a big claim to my life. Any time anything important happened, one of his songs was playing. When I think back to my wedding I think of lots of songs, but a key one was “Suffragette City” where I danced with my cousins and my new husband and we really jumped quite a lot despite that I was wearing heels and I sung along and a lot of the people on the dance floor were singing along because we were having a shared moment of life and energy and newness, hurtling into tomorrow together, and we all knew the lyrics which is exciting and settling all at once, especially given that I imagine most of us are more used to more anxious forms of excitement. The best part of that song is the “Wham Bam Thank-you Ma’am”. I don’t remember the first time I heard that song because it feels like it was always there, like if music is epigenetic then we might be born already knowing most of Bowie’s back catalogue, but the first time might have been a shock because it just comes out of nowhere. By the second time you’re in the bumpy ride with everyone else and you can just enjoy the splendour of it, and even just the fact that “Wham Bam Thank-you Ma’am” is really fun to say.
There are a few songs in the world where the songwriter feels like they understand me, and that keep their power every time I listen to them, and that terrify and delight me, that I know I have no idea what they mean but I just feel so drawn to emotionally. All of these songs are David Bowie songs. I listen to “Sorrow” in my melancholy moments to remind myself that sadness is beautiful. I listen to “Space Oddity” in those times I begin to harbour the desire to be launched out to space forever. I listen to “Young Americans” to remember that art is referential (“I heard the news today oh boy”) and fun. I listen to “Under Pressure” when I’m trying to perform to a strict deadline. I listen to “Life on Mars” when I’m sick of the people around me replaying the same drama over and over (“the film is a saddening bore/because she’s lived it ten times or more”). I listen to “Kooks” as a magic spell and pure reassurance and playfulness. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is kind of the opposite, when I want to lend a particular coolness to my angst while still knowing I’m not the only one who feels like this (“you’re not alone”)
“Heroes” has shaped my view of geopolitics, the way individual people interact with a monolithic history (“I remember/standing by the wall”), while “I’m Afraid of Americans” is pretty much my go-to soundtrack for US policy.
All these songs were playing at pivotal moments, but that’s because they were always playing. They are my blood.
More recently, particularly after I went to the David Bowie exhibition in Melbourne last year, Bowie has come to represent to me the ideal model of creativity. There’s so much pressure in the age of modern capitalism to carve out a niche, to find a formula for reliable success, to keep at it, to earn truckloads of money, to undertake some kind of consistent branding process whereby your identity is water mixed with food dye to spill all over your interests and change them all into whatever shade you’ve chosen (let’s say blue) and anything that doesn’t go with blue you can’t touch because who you are and your key hashtags should become obvious over the space of 140 characters and red is too complicated for fans of blue to take in. There was no David Bowie brand and he never wrote himself into a corner, although some people will maybe argue that his brand was reinvention, I think it is likely that if people think the way marketers think they think, reinvention is still going out on a limb because it doesn’t fit nicely in a tweet and even more importantly because by carving out so many of his own tracks so often he would have been a magnet for failure. Fortunately, the friction of his polyester outfits probably produced a strong charge which alienated those failure magnets. What I take out of this is that the materials used for costume design are very important, but even more importantly, if you’re getting bored of doing the same things over and over it is time to do something else and not worry about the potential losses but about your artistic integrity, your authenticity, your passion, and so on.
You lead you, even if nobody ends up really seeing you – those people in the audience knowing you personally doesn’t matter because it isn’t about identity, it’s about art, or if it is a bit about identity, it’s about the slipperiness of a person, the complexity, the capacity to carry opposites in a sexy synthesis that is joyful and moody and good – don’t be bullied into being a certain way by the weirdness of our times because, well, fuck it.
So this is the essay I have written. Not an obituary, not some kind of authoritative summary of what this man’s life and work meant, what he should mean to you, what lessons you should learn, because I don’t know enough to write something like that. I don’t feel like I really know anything, I don’t know if this is even grief because I’m sure I did not know David Bowie. All I can say is what David Bowie meant to me and how this meaning has emerged in a nebulous, poorly-defined but crucial way in my life so far. But there’s still so much more to go, and every song is so ripe with meaning, meaning that is already living beyond his body, that Bowie has given me a lifetime supply of thoughts and experiences.