Monday, January 11, 2016

"Look up here, I’m in heaven": A Remembrance of David Bowie

"Look up here, I’m in heaven."
(David Bowie, "Lazarus")

Last night I couldn't sleep. At the time I didn't know why. I wasn't anxious about anything. I wasn't uncomfortable. I was neither too hot nor too cold. It was after I got up and got on my computer that I learned what I think might have been behind my sleeplessness. It was a disturbance in the Force, a rift in the space/time continuum. To put it more simply, the legendary David Bowie had died.

Twelve hours later my eyes are still red with tears and I seem prone to break down crying at any given moment. I've been listening to David Bowie's songs for much of the day, everything from his earliest work ("Love You Till Tuesday") to his latest work ("Lazarus").  Part of me thinks that it is impossible that David Bowie could be dead. Only a few people knew just how seriously ill he was and so, like the rest of the general public, I assumed he would be with us for many more years. It is for that reason that while David Bowie's death was not sudden (he had fought cancer for eighteen months), it seems as if was to me. With no time for me to prepare for a world without David Bowie, then, his death was unexpected and perhaps for that reason the grief I feel is even more raw and more intense than it might have been otherwise. I am certainly in no shape to write the usual eulogy that I would today.

The fact is that for most of my life I have been a David Bowie fan. I cannot even remember what was the first David Bowie song I ever heard. I suspect it had to have been "Space Oddity" or perhaps "Changes". At any rate I was certainly aware of him by the time of his release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in mid-1972. I was nine years old and a bit too young to understand the whole concept behind the album, but I liked the music. At the very least I knew that it dealt with a rock star from Mars, which appealed to a kid who even then was a fan of fantasy and science fiction.

Needless to say, I became a David Bowie fan while very young. I was fortunate enough to enter my tween years and then my teen years at a time when Mr. Bowie was at the height of his career. It was a time when some of his best known songs were released: "Life on Mars?", "Rebel Rebel", "Fame", "'Heroes'", and "Ashes to Ashes". In the wake of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie's albums did very well in the United States. Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Station to Station all peaked in the top ten of the Billboard albums chart.

In the Seventies David Bowie appeared very infrequently on American television. While I am sure I saw him more times, I can remember watching David Bowie at least three times during the decade. I vaguely remember seeing the video to "Ashes to Ashes" on some show in those days before MTV. Like many my most vivid memory of David Bowie on television in the Seventies was on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, which was also Bing Crosby's final Christmas special. Even before re-watching the special this Yuletide, I could clearly remember his duet with Bing Crosby and the "'Heroes'" video that aired during the special. In fact, "'Heroes'" might well have been the first "music video" I had ever seen outside of The Beatles' promotional films. I also have vague memories of David Bowie performing "Space Oddity" on a Dick Clark special in the late Seventies, by which time I was very familiar with both the song and Mr. Bowie's other work. At any rate, by the time the Seventies became the Eighties I was familiar with David Bowie's appearance and the sound of his voice.

I remained a David Bowie fan throughout my life, as he progressed from Ziggy Stardust to glam rocker to the Thin White Duke and beyond. While other artists I had loved as a child sometimes produced work that failed to match their classics, David Bowie was always guaranteed to deliver superior songs. I enjoyed "Modern Love", "Blue Jean", "Heaven's in Here" (with Tin Machine), and yet other songs often as much as I did his earlier work.

Looking back in some ways it might seem odd that David Bowie would appeal to a kid growing up in mid-Missouri. His music was very different from that to which I had been exposed before: The Beatles, The Who, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, and so on. He even looked different from any music artist I'd seen before, especially given I discovered him during his Ziggy Stardust era. That having been said, I think it was the very fact that David Bowie was different that turned me onto him. In the early to mid-Seventies there weren't that many music artists who blended science fiction, fantasy, and rock and roll. There were Hawkwind. There were Blue Öyster Cult. And there was David Bowie. Songs like "Space Oddity", "Starman", and so on couldn't help but appeal to a kid who was already an avid fan of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

Of course, the very fact that David Bowie was different may well have been much of what appealed to me as well. While I was never picked on or bullied or anything like that all through school, I was aware that I was different from other kids. Even then I was a bit of a dreamer. I was creative even then, writing my own comic books. My reading material tended towards fantasy, science fiction, and old pulp novels. I was an Anglophile even then and would have been even if I wasn't already English in descent. While I wasn't picked on or bullied, I did sometimes feel like an outsider. Perhaps in being so different (much more different than I was as a kid), David Bowie reassured me that it was not only all right to be different, it was cool to be different. Perhaps he made it more acceptable for me to stand out from the crowd.

If David Bowie had simply been some odd looking guy who fused science fiction with rock music, he might have just remained a part of my childhood and youth. The fact is that David Bowie was an enormously talented and creative singer and songwriter, something that was not lost on me when I entered my teens. At a time when other rock stars were content to sing about love, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, David Bowie was singing about reinventing oneself ("Changes") and dystopias ("1984"). While Mr. Bowie would prove to be very successful on the charts over the years, I always got the feeling that he was never concerned with being commercial, only with being creative. It is to be noted that some of his best known songs didn't always perform the best on the charts ("Changes" being a prime example).

Right now it seems impossible to me that David Bowie has died. Even now I keep expecting for it to be revealed as some kind of hoax. Sadly, given the announcement of his death on Mr. Bowie's various official social media accounts, as well as the various obituaries and tributes to him, I know all too well it is true. As as result right now I feel a very profound sense of loss. I suppose a good way of looking at it was stated quite eloquently by Twitter user Dean Podestá, "If you're ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie." One could take this one step further and say that we should be thankful that David Bowie existed at all.

1 comment:

KC said...

I kept crying yesterday too. It was nice that a local station played his songs all day. He's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I never stopped listening to him. It was only after he passed that I realized how he made me braver and more proud of the things that made me different from others. Nice tribute.