Death seems to visit us in the night when it knows it can hurt us the most.
I checked my Facebook to see a stream of David Bowie songs and photos and I knew. As much as I wanted to chalk it up to a crazy dream. Say it isn’t so. David Bowie isn’t supposed to die. Certainly not from an eighteen month cancer battle. We were just used to having him back and now it’s all over just as it started. It didn’t make sense and it won’t make sense in the morning either.
But David Bowie made a career out of confounding us all. His whole image was built out of sharp swerves. What kind of icon begins a career with a novelty smash about the then-recent moon landing, releasing his second self-titled album and following it with needly metal, then following that with song cycles by and for queer aliens? Not to mention after that, his coke-fueled soul smashes with a trio of ambient and alienating futurist pop albums. And so on. You could write scores of articles about all the WTF moments of his long, unprecedented career.
I discovered Bowie at age twelve and followed him like a roadmap. There are few artists today who could lay claim to having coaxed career-best albums out of their heroes (helping the similarly missed Lou Reed with “Transformer” and helming the mixing board for no less than three masterpieces from Iggy Pop). And who could be able to draw influence from the artier threads of foreign psych rock (German, in Bowie’s case) to create songs that would be palatable to both boho gremlins and soulless singing contest shows (Neu! meets Britain’s Got Talent, who’da thunk)? Who was David Bowie and how did he do it?
In terms of a legacy, he will be remembered equally for his brilliant songs and his powers of assimilation, though we shouldn’t forget how his work managed to draw the ire of about everyone at some point, sold on him or no. Reading an archived Letters to the Editor section of Rolling Stone during Ziggymania, I lost track of how many times I saw the word “faggot” in print. The Krautrock crowd declined to work with him and after his giant success with “Let’s Dance” catapulted him from cult icon to stadium star, he looked out into the largest sea of faces of his career and realized that he had no idea what any of them wanted.
And when his albums hit a dry patch, we were all put off. All of a sudden, David Bowie wasn’t ahead of the curve. He couldn’t hear the future coming any longer. He wasn’t leading, he was reacting, they said. We said. Our alien was human after all, and a lot of us were disappointed. But so was he. And after a couple of earlier health scares, he disappeared for nearly a decade. No music. No shows. Nothing.
Just like his death now, I discovered his returning song in the middle of a sleepless night in early 2013, and just like his death, it was real and verifiable but it didn’t seem that way at the time. There were those eyes, staring at me as I watched the rest of the sleepy internet slowly realize that the hiatus was over, and for the first time in a decade, David Bowie got us all over again. And my god, it was really good music. And there was gobs of it on the way.
…he looked out into the largest sea of faces of his career and realized that he had no idea what any of them wanted.
If David Bowie looked out at his audience and didn’t know what to give them, we as the audience never quite knew what we wanted back from him. He certainly didn’t owe us anything at this point in his life, and he could have rested on his laurels and died a legend just the same, but the reemergence of David Bowie with a relaxed release schedule and that eternal restlessness felt exciting. It was as if he was warming up and really getting back into his groove.
“Blackstar” felt like a transition into a new era but now, barring any other music that may or may not be coming our way, it stands as an epitaph. And it’s every bit as perverse and difficult as the man who made it, an eternal stranger who, good or bad, never knew how to stand still. With this final disappearing act and the announcement of his illness and demise, David Bowie has completed his last transformation and caught us all off guard one last time. What an irreplaceable loss but what a wild ride. Where do we go from here?
A version of this article was originally featured at Omnibus Journal, Jan. 11, 2016.