I woke up this morning and did the usual thing: scanned my phone for headlines.
Despite the Redskins losing in a semi-final, the Washington Post chose to lead the morning’s news with an image of David Bowie. No argument here.
I thought it curious and incredible (in the truest sense of the word). The headline words were in an off-kilter, seemingly not-dedicated past tense, “Charismatic singer-songwriter possessed mesmerizing talents” sub head: “David Bowie influenced glam rock, new wave, punk and high fashion with edgy and androgynous alter egos who invited listeners to explore their personal mysteries.”
Read headline. Hmm. David Bowie.
Look at image. Nice pic. Groovy, hot. Defiant.
Re-read subheadline. … Past tense. He has reinvented himself yet again, new album… it makes sense… but hmmm.
Look at image. He’s young here, looks great. Something’s off…
Re-re-read subheadline… Noooooo….
Tap on link. Scan scan scan… WHAT?!
I read the article and was summarily seven minutes late attending to my youngest son who was prepping for school.
I was NOT a little bummed out about this.
I don’t expect my dad to understand my sadness. I suppose that this loss is like his generation’s learning the Mozart had died.
In all fairness, I do remember my mother being a little blue when hearing that Elvis had died. She was sort of in a little funk after that. Alternately she would speak of his sexuality and her appreciation of his art as being “terrible music” and a worse actor. “Your father is more handsome than Elvis, and they were in the army at the same time…” She’d often said for decades after The King had died.
I remember being very very sad when the stuttered news of John Lennon had balanced across the airwaves. I was in the living room of our Buffalo house. My brother came rushing into the room after maybe hearing it somewhere else in the house. Or maybe we were together and he heard it there too; he was pretty busted up. All I knew is that the Beatles were never getting back together after that.
Kurt Cobain, another unbelievable loss. I remember exactly where I was when I found out he had died. I was 23 and working as an editorial assistant at a local publishing house. It was my job (and everyone else’s) to scan the bank of our A/P Newswire, Reuters, and UPI dot matrix printers which all seemed to have had a simultaneous seizure attack with the news of Nirvana’s crushingly self-conscious front man.
But for the majority of them, I was young when I’d heard about them. I was still a kid and so hearing that a rock star had died was sort of not terribly sad for me. It was half expected. Even Cobain, he was a contemporary and to me, hell-bent on achieving some horrific end.
But Bowie… Hearing about Bowie today is different.
Bowie was a pioneer, a legend, larger than life, and a fantastically in-your-face pot stirrer. I loved him. I didn’t ever own a lot of anyone’s music, but I really loved him. No matter what I was doing, when a Bowie tune came on the radio years ago or over our iTunes or Pandora in my later years, everything stopped and it was time to groove.
I went downstairs to my husband and mentioned it to him. “D’jou hear about Bowie? He died. Last night.”
“Yeah, Cornelius* mentioned it to me this morning. I sort of can’t believe it. I was just reading about him last week…” he said as he was awaiting the Keurig to urge the last drops of the Cinnamon Dolce into his cup.
“Cancer.” I said. “What a bummer. That was NOT COOL to wake up to.” And that he’d cranked out an album while that sick is just adding to his mystique and überhumanity.
It’s not that people aren’t allowed to die. But some deaths, after initially absorbed, seem fitting — Philip Seymour Hoffman / Heath Ledger and their respective accidental overdoses. Robin Williams’ suicide. All majorly upsetting ways to die. But somehow, when we take off the layers of our own sadness and misdirected mass-cultural appreciation for what these people represented, we understand them a little better and are still very sad about the loss, but it seems to gel.
But for me, right now, I have deduced that I am disappointed or put off in the manner in which Bowie died. I was fully expecting a motorcycle crash, or an airplane accident. Maybe even an accidental drug overdose but never CANCER. That he died in a most human way somehow for me belied his most seeming superhuman and celestial, preternatural existence.
Through all his iterations, incarnations, stage personae and antics, Bowie indeed taught and inspired us to live our art. To be fearless. To take chances and risks which make us feel more alive. I loved that when I felt weird and strange, he had songs about feeling weird and strange. And it didn’t feel inauthentic; it’s like when Thom Yorke of Radiohead sings raw and real in “Creep”: “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
So in the late 70s I was about ten years old. Gangly, nerdy and dressed in Health Tex likely. I remember being with my much cooler and slightly older (but five years then was half my lifetime) cousins. In their teenage attic bedrooms a lá Greg Brady, and just dancing in the most geeky way to Suffragette City and its ramp-up to “WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA’AM!” and not knowing what the hell any of it was about, but loving it so much nonetheless.
Another cousin, slightly younger than me, has had a lifelong love of David Bowie. She has been very faithful, never wavering in her adulation of him as the pinnacle of her rock star loves. I’m sad for her today.
My older brother liked Bowie enough, but wasn’t like in LOVE with him. He definitely appreciated him for his rebellion and strangeness, but he was more into the Doors and the Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, and old Beatles tunes. I have no doubt this particular brother is heavily bummed about this death.
In 1981, “Under Pressure” came out and I remember being ABSOLUTELY STUNNED by the power of that anthem. It was released a few months after my move to Northern Virginia from Buffalo, and given my age (14), and the mounting pile of shit occurring in my family and personal life at that time, it hit on the head the exact way I was feeling. I remember pressing “record” on my Panasonic clock radio with built-in tape recorder when it was played on DC-101. Those wonderful 4″ speakers played the soundtrack of my life and got me through some heavy-duty angst and ennui.
But moving to NoVa at that time, despite its proximity to Georgetown, Washington D.C., and the much cooler Annapolis, Maryland, was the land of >gag me with a grody wooden spoon< Southern Rock. Bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alabama and Molly Hatchett and good lord who cares (no, that’s not the name of a SoRo band although it should be) reigned supreme here. No one I knew in my high school, other than the gay siblings of people I knew and their “alternative” drama and art friends (people I actually should have hung out more with) were into Bowie. Little did I know until much later how very cool those people were and are today. Tim, Michelle and others, you were and still are, the kewlest.
That same fall of ’81, my brother, who was off to college in upstate New York was kind enough to send me (or more likely leave behind) good music on mixed tapes (remember those? I just went out to dinner with a good friend and his new squeeze the other night and we had the best time talking about mixed tapes and college tunes — all to the sound track of some amazing Tom Petty playing in the background — which I had to request of our waiter Bobby to turn down NOT BECAUSE it was it too loud, but because it was too loud that we couldn’t talk about how amazing it was… there’s a difference) from bands like Depeche Mode, REM, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Gene Loves Jezebel and all the rest. Once I started getting into those tunes and I could drive to a record store, Waxie Maxie’s somewhat near home, I was off to the races. In no short order, my brother sort of saved me.
And within a few brief years later, that all hideous Southern Rock was shown the door (or at least the door to the unlit parking lot outside the club) thanks to a little quartet from Dublin known as U2.
My memories of David Bowie, like your memories of David Bowie, are what will keep him forever alive in our hearts, in our headphones and through our speakers. David Bowie got most of the people of my generation through some really hard adolescent days; David knew us, he knew what we were thinking and feeling better than we did.
As a parent, I hear myself playing in my head that gorgeous line from Changes:
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
(For some reason, I can’t attach a youtube video of him singing Changes — in 2008, and it’s so lovely. But here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbnJo88kuP8)
Hearing that line again and again reminds me to let my kids feel what they’re feeling and that I just need to back the hell off and be a soft place to fall when they get off track.
I don’t normally write about popular culture or celebrity deaths, maybe that’s why my blog is so unpopular, but like Bowie, I prefer to write about what touches me and take risks expressing myself and sharing my world in ways others might think precarious. We have only one life and none of us need to spend it swaddled in crushing self-doubt and insecurity.
Let’s Dance, Modern Love… I could go on and on, but I won’t go on and on. I’ll let you wax in your own memories.
RIP David. You are now truly Stardust.