mourning-the-alien-the-many-lives-and-powerful-death-of-david-bowie
Photo: Jimmy King

Mourning the Alien: The Many Lives and Powerful Death of David Bowie

In remembering David Bowie, we ask that you remember him two ways: through the eyes of so many others who saw so many different things in him, and through the biggest lie that he ever told us.

You’ve already seen at least a dozen. Maybe two dozen. Actually, you, dear reader, have probably seen no less than a 100 obituaries, tributes, homages, YouTube links, too-lengthy notes overexplaining how much he meant, too-short Tweets grappling with the words to properly express what cannot be expressed, and listicle upon listicle trying to sum up not even the greatest works but merely a single facet of what David Robert Jones has accomplished. The things he touched and innovated were so diverse and so varied that you probably completely overlooked that one time he starred in a video game but without even clicking on that link, you think “Of course he did: because he’s David Bowie, and it was probably great.”

Yet when it comes to mourning David Bowie, you owe it to yourself to do one thing: round up all of those homages and tearful remembrances and editorials and personal encounters that everyone has posted… and read them all. Every word. Every detail. The more you dig, the more you absorb, the more you begin to realize that throughout Bowie’s 69 vibrant years of life, there is no one on this planet who has had the same experience with him. Anyone’s interaction with the works of the Thin White Duke is as unique and varied as our own thumbprints, as no two will ever be the same. There are legions of people, including someone you know right now, that first got introduced to him through his too-iconic role in Labyrinth, just as how there are those picked up that strange Ziggy Stardust album when it first came out, but maybe it was “Heroes” that brought them into the fold, or maybe “I’m Afraid of Americans”. Or “Under Pressure”. Or a Christopher Nolan movie. Or a Martin Scorsese movie. Or a Michael C. Hall-starring stage production. Or a goddamn video game.

And while it’s easy to simply wrap everything up in one big bow of rhetoric and say “he was a true innovator!” and calling it a day, such phrasing does a disservice to just how utterly shocking and singular his vision was. Imagine being in 1974, and seeing this visage, of an eyepatched guitarist with a hoop earing and high-heeled men’s shoes, emerge from out of your TV while singing about some “rebel rebel,” and as tempted as you are to say “What a freak!” and flick to another channel, that shining guitar hook just buries its way further and further into your head with each repetition, and you realize, no, maybe you can’t dismiss him. Maybe he’s an exceptional composer dressed in outrageous fashion, and maybe he’s a great songwriter even when he stops playing guitar and starts using it as a phallic prop because it was a taped TV appearance and why the hell wouldn’t he do that? To say “he let his freak flag fly” is diminutive and wrong, because Bowie just… was. He put on numerous hats (and even more hairstyles) throughout the decades, but each new character, each strange and otherworldly iteration, wasn’t the result of half-assery (well, unless you count Tin Machine), but a fully realized vision, something that was designed to be shared and consumed by the masses even if the intent was to bend our reality just a little bit more than we were expecting, and against all odds, he did it time and time again.

For anyone who got a chance to see the touring exhibition that was David Bowie is got something very special out of it, as it took up to three hours to complete this elaborate, detailed walkthrough of Bowie’s life and art, each passing moment making you realize that his vision was far grander in scale than anyone could have expected. There was footage him practicing his mime work as a young man, honing in on a strange new craft as he continued obsessing over theater. There was his Klaus Nomi-inspired outfit he wore during an appearance of Saturday Night Live where he was joined on stage by, well, Klaus Nomi. There laid a set of the “Oblique Strategies” cards that Brian Eno developed that helped challenge Bowie in the studio as he created his most accomplished string of albums known as “the Berlin trilogy.” There was footage of Bowie in concert, examples of Bowie’s contributions to fashion, and a series of clips from his various film works (yet, somehow, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was conspicuously absent).

If it all sounds sprawling it’s because of course it was. It was technicolor fire mixed with technical mastery, storyboards for never-completed films and countless video monitors showing an endless stream of music videos from his ’90s electronic phases. What’s perhaps most astounding about the exhibit wasn’t so much the sheer scope of what it entailed, but how even after spending several hours walking through it, you didn’t feel exhausted of overwhelmed, but more often than not actually inspired. This is in part because Bowie always had a positive connection with his art, using it not to degrade or dismiss but to celebrate the outre and the obscure. Even Blackstar, his final opus that was released a mere two days before his death, is now flush with context following his passing, as Bowie struggled with cancer in private while pushing himself to make something new, definitive, and pointed. Art wasn’t his job so much as it was his escape, and incidentally, it’s that very reason that Bowie became an escape for his fans.

Yet Bowie, as reluctant as we are to admit it, was also human. He made mistakes. He made both Tin Machine and Tin Machine II, to say nothing of “The Laughing Gnome” (although, let’s be honest, “Gnome” is still fun as hell, if not just for that laugh at the end). He was accused and later cleared of sexual assault charges by a Dallas grand jury in 1987, although questions always lingered. His struggle with cocaine was notorious but eventually conquered. His 2002 Best of Bowie compilation featured 13 different versions that were rejiggered to more accurately reflect his “hits” in each territory, and was needlessly excessive (and for those looking for a stellar entry point, look no further than 2014’s incredible triple-disc retrospective Nothing Has Changed).

But every musician has their share of artistic misfires, and Bowie not only created an insurmountable discography of classic recordings to overshadow such lesser moments, but he also used his cultural prominence to help out those whom he loved himself, whether it be producing what would become the biggest album of Lou Reed’s career (1972’s Transformer), his constant collaborations with Iggy Pop, or singing background vocals for hip new bands like TV On the Radio and Arcade Fire. Almost any musician who met him was struck by his charm, intelligence, and generosity of spirit, a rare instance of your heroes being both more relatable than you could ever imagine and yet just as perfect as you’d want them to be.

It’s for this reason why the passing of David Bowie hits us right in the chest, why it’s just a little bit harder to breathe after finding out he died, because, well, it never seemed like he was going to. After putting out albums that themselves are older than most of his fans, David Bowie always commanded a very large part of the pop culture consciousness, one that was so infused with his personality that it proved damn near impossible to hear (or even cover) a song of his without thinking about the starman who created it. Although many have tried, there was only one universally-accepted good cover of a David Bowie song, and it came from a somewhat unexpected source. But Kurt Cobain was, in many ways, like you, like me, like that friend who just posted something on Facebook about Bowie’s passing that’s 2000 words longer than what you’re reading right now: we are the oddballs, the outsiders, the freaks, the fans, all cut from a different cloth but my gods have you seen how well that cloth accents your lightning-bolt facepaint? The reason that everyone’s experience with the works of David Bowie is so unique is because he was more than a celebrated pop star: he was a friend. He was that person who had endured ridicule and dismissal a good 30-plus years before any of us would ever experience the same, and he not only handled it all with grace, but made art out of it, art that has transcended genre, scene, and even time itself.

So in remembering David Bowie, we ask that you remember him two ways: through the eyes of so many others who saw so many different things in him, and through the biggest lie that he ever told us. That lie comes in the form of the opening verse to “Thrusday’s Child”, where he croons:

All of my life I tried so hard

Doing my best with I had

Nothing much happened all the same

Something about me stood apart

A whisper of hope that seemed to fail

Maybe I’m born right out of my time

All of it rings of truth and with the thinnest possible veil of autobiography, but the falsehood that rings loudest is the line “nothing much happened all the same”, a blatant fib that was, perhaps, Bowie trying his best to be modest. But deep down, he knew what he had done, he knew what made him happy, and it’s why he pushed his way through, all the way up until just days after his final birthday, arguably, and even poetically, up until his last breath. We mourn not because of his varied achievements, the barriers he broke, or how he absolutely changed our world, but because even with all of that, he was our friend, one who knew us far better than we would ever know him, and now, that mystery will always linger, his absence deeply felt, his body gone but his legacy sewed deep inside all of us, the light radiating off of that blackstar for eons to come.

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