"Oh," said my wife. "David Bowie died."
I had just just stepped out of the shower. I was putting in my contact lenses, still wearing a towel.
"What?" I said.
"'David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer.'" She read the words from her iPhone.
It wasn't possible. He doesn't have cancer. I raced to look at her screen.
"His son just confirmed it on Twitter."
It was true. Two days after his 25th studio album and his 69th birthday...
Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now
I turned my face away when the tears started. Walked out of the room when they came thick and heavy.
In 1983, I wore a Van Halen symbol on a necklace. I drank Jack Daniels from the bottle. I thought David Lee Roth was the epitome of cool. Together with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they defined my musical existence. And music defined my everything. When "Let's Dance" debuted on MTV, I was aghast. I couldn't stand the skinny little fag (Those were my words, I'm very ashamed to say. Yes, I was that guy, but read on...) singing about putting on red shoes and dancing. An upright bass was no instrument for a rock band.
For fear your grace should fall
For fear tonight is all
Then in college, a girl introduced me to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was an entirely different musical experience, a hard rock concept album far more in keeping with who I was then. I couldn't reconcile it with the Bowie I'd seen on MTV. Then, while sorting through a roommate's albums, I found the two collections, Changes One and Changes Two. From my first glimpse of the jacket I was intrigued. They looked like photos of two entirely different men. As I listened to both, I couldn't understand how one person could have such a varied range of musical styles...
Changes Two, in particular, wormed its way into my brainpan. To this day, that's my favorite image of the artist, the one I think of first when I think of Bowie. And it was on Changes Two that I discovered the song "Ashes to Ashes." Oh my god, that's when I fell in the rabbit hole and never came out.
Do you remember a guy that's been
In such an early song
I've heard a rumour from Ground Control
Oh no, don't say it's true
College was a period of rapid change for me. There were a lot of influences at work, from the literature I was reading, from college professors and the philosophies they were introducing me to, from Star Trek: The Next Generation's philosophy of diversity and tolerance, from my classmates. I went from joking that the theater building was the one building on campus I'd never set foot in to spending an entire fifth year at school to take every single acting class required for a major. (I didn't major in theater, because I didn't take the history of theater classes required, but I took every actual "acting" acting course that a major would have required.)
Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I'm going through
Labyrinth debuted during all this as well. I dragged my father to it when I was home from school one summer. I remember telling him, "David Bowie was an actor even before he was a musician. So this is David Bowie the actor we're seeing. Not David Bowie the musician." And then, of course, the film begins with "Underground" over the opening credits. Oh well, this is David Bowie the actor and David Bowie the musician. But... David Bowie and Muppets! George Lucas producing and Jim Henson co-writing directing! I'm still unpacking how seminal that film was in the context of my own love of fantasy narrative.
But down in the underground
You'll find someone true
In Chicago, I co-wrote and co-directed small, black box comedies in a tiny theater in a crack neighborhood. After rehearsals, when we walked to the L late night, you'd see people lined up to buy their junk through a little window in a reinforced door. We'd stare at them and they'd stare at us. There was a record store near my house. They had a poster on the wall. Bowie. Soul. Period. The guy at the record store who was my taste-advisor was huge on Bowie. But only his two funk and soul albums, Young Americans and Station to Station. It blew my mind that here were two people, both hugely into Bowie, but two completely different Bowies.
Ain't there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?
Sometimes I wasn't ready to go where he was leading. I bought Outside but didn't listen to it more than once for years. Black Tie, White Noise was a disappointment. (I love both albums now). Even understanding that a man who was "chameleon, comedian, corinthian, and caricature" would never repeat himself, I still dug my heels in and wanted him to do that thing he did before again. It was a few more years before I realized it wasn't about whether I liked the latest David Bowie or not. It was about my willingness to let him take me by the hand and guide me to the next horizon.
1997's Earthling knocked me for yet another loop. He was 50 years old (50!) and releasing possibly
the best thing he'd ever done. And it was so new. His 50th Birthday Bash Celebration Concert at Madison Square Garden, in which he performed his songs alongside a host of famous rockstars, wasn't a nostalgic look down memory lane. It was a challenge. A vital declaration that he was still forging head through cutting edge territories years ahead of the rest of us. "I have no idea where I'm going from here," Bowie said, "but I promise I won't bore you."
Reality came out around the time I got married. A Reality Tour is probably the best of all his live albums, my favorite line-up of musicians applying his new sounds to old songs. "China Girl," never one of my favorites, is astounding with Mike Garson on piano and Gail Ann Dorsey on bass. Their rendition of "Under Pressure" is not to be missed.
Last year, while I was a guest at a convention outside Chicago, my very good friend Stephenson and I got to slip away to visit David Bowie Is, a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a profound experience for both of us, I a lifelong fan and he a relative newbie. What we both took from it was the man's incredible discipline and dedication, the drive behind his drive. The relentless push for excellence. I'm so grateful for that day. I've written about it elsewhere, but it was a powerful day for me.
And then there's Blackstar. His 25th studio album, released on his 69th birthday. As enigmatic as anything he's ever done. Utterly different from the other 24. Yet quintessentially him.
And then two days later, he's gone.
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
Three friends and my mother have called me today to see if I'm okay. Others have emailed, posted on my Facebook page.
My first though, honestly, was for his family. It feels self-indulgent for me to grieve when actual people lost an actual father, husband, friend... I never met David Bowie. In contrast to Robyn Hitchcock, who I've seen perform somewhere between thirty-five and forty times and who I've even published in anthologies, I've never seen Bowie live. But along with Hitchcock, Batman, Star Trek, Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, he's one of a handful of primary influences. Certainly the central musical influence, but also the guiding light when it comes to understand what it means to be an artist and live a creative life. I see his fingerprint on everything I do.
There's also a sly understanding that Bowie has orchestrated the circumstances of his passing as masterfully as anything he's ever done. We all wondered yesterday at the meaning of the lyrics of the songs on Blackstar, at the dead spaceman and hospital room imagery of the videos for "Blackstar" and "Lazarus." Now our interpretations of his final offering are radically different from what they were yesterday. A second layer of meaning has been superimposed over the first and we see how it has been there all along. Our narratives are full of stories of mega-celebrities and super famous rock icons who pull stunts with their deaths. Bowie's actually done it. He kept the news of his failing health out of the press. He gave us what was always intended as his final album. He knew how we've view it before and after he left. "I can't give everything away", the final track on the final album, is absolutely intended as his last word.
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout's hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I tried to explain to my young daughter that a musician I greatly admired had passed. I think she thought I said "magician."
"I know why he died," she proclaimed. "He did too many tricks, and in too many of his tricks he fell down."
Yes, actually. That's a good summation. 69 is actually pretty old for a rockstar that indulged in as many different illicit passions as he did. And "magician" is as good a monicker for what the Starman was as any other. But while the Man Who Fell to Earth has fallen for the last time, still in his passing he challenges us again. In an era when the highest grossing film of all time in North America could be said to be a remake of its 1977 predecessor, and so much of our entertainment is geared towards giving us exactly what we already know we enjoy, the Blackstar directs us to throw away our safety nets, to leave our comfort zones and seek our inspirations in unknown, even frightening, new horizons. I may never had met David Robert Jones in the flesh, but in every other sense, he touched me. He took a prejudiced, mis-and-uninformed young southern boy and lead him to a wider, fuller, richer, multicolored, exciting, diverse world even as he helped that same boy find his artistic voice and footing. He is the epitome of artist. Chameleon, comedian, corinthian, and caricature, indeed. Creators everywhere take heed. No, everyone take heed. David Bowie is gone, but that doesn't mean we get to rest easy. He's thrown the gauntlet down...and he's still inspiring...
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)