David Bowie’s death jolted even casual fans today
I see this outpouring of sadness for David Bowie today, and I don’t feel it. I’m not indifferent either—it’s more like my nerves are jangled, like we all received small portions of Bowie’s life force and it’s a lot to contain. I feel like I’ve just left a funeral, and I’ve shut the church doors behind me, and I’m walking down the stone steps alone. The cold air hits my eyes and nose, and all I can think is “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.”
It’s not my place to mourn David Bowie. I know that, because my Facebook friends say they are gutted and I’m not even sad. I’m sorry they’re sad, and my hat’s off to the strangeness and good taste that made them turn toward Bowie with such reverence. I feel bad for his family and it’s jarring that he was born the same year as my parents and now he is gone. It’s a reminder that death is circling. I hear he had good personal qualities, I assumed he was a genius, and I know now that he was a beacon. I just didn’t pick up his signal.
I always liked David Bowie—liked his songs, got a kick out of him. I thought he was cute. He cropped up at all the usual mainstream points in my 80s and 90s. He was unavoidable in the great intake of pop culture nutrients, but I didn’t recognize his divinity. He was jumbled in with dozens of other artists I like. I danced to “Let’s Dance,” sang along theatrically to “Under Pressure,” and brooded to “Space Oddity.” But ultimately David Bowie was less important to me than, say, Belly, P.J. Harvey, or Ethyl Meatplow.
Even as I consumed 80s and 90s pop, grunge, and whatever else was on offer, I had favorites that I had no one to share with. My most steady musical loves—my Bowie equivalents—the ones that are tangled up with my selfhood since sixth grade—were less starry and strange than Bowie. At the core of this group were Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Greg Brown, and Townes Van Zandt. They felt like things I knew on the most basic level: wet wool, low tide, creosote, diesel, tobacco smoke, fish blood, salt water, bad weather, wood stoves. Everyone on Facebook says they loved David Bowie because they identified with his strangeness. I don’t think of them as stranger than me, just cooler.
As I climbed up into my late-blooming twenties, I finally connected with other people my age who also lived and breathed music. Our overlaps were generous, our enthusiasms intense. We could trade oxygen masks and splice IV drips. Lying on our backs in a blanket fort, holding hands, listening to albums end to end, not speaking a word. A true lover of Bowie was once a true love of mine. He was ropy, scrappy, charismatic, dancerly, a beam of light. We looked each other dead in the eye for a long moment of thinking maybe wildness and art could reach escape velocity. The monsters of poverty, mental illness, and addiction were close behind, and all our differences came crashing into the exit interview: “You’re so middle class. You know nothing, and you’ll marry someone white, boring, and rich.” I was left staring at the words “Ziggy Stardust” scrawled across the label of a cassette tape he’d dubbed for me.
I didn’t get married, but the rest was true. I didn’t know much. Once I stopped thrashing about, I just kind of floated deeper into the middle class. I stopped living and breathing for music, and anesthetized myself instead. I didn’t really know about Bowie. Today at his global Internet wake, I see that I was like someone who hasn’t noticed the sunset in a year. I’m like someone who forgot to look at the moon.
The news that David Bowie died was the first thing I heard when my radio alarm clock went off at 4:41 am. We woke up this morning and Bowie was gone, but the broadcast isn’t over. His most recent album is so new that people are only just starting to sink their teeth into it. It’s not too late for the full discovery: everyone just spiraled closer in today. The true believers became stardustologists. The neophytes became disciples. The uninitiated became converts. Next month, a twelve-year-old kid will hear Bowie for the first time, and the transmission will be clear as a bell.
Once I got up and got to the office, I watched Bowie’s new Lazarus video on youtube. I saw it was a goodbye. Then I listened to Cheryl Waters spin Bowie on KEXP. After a while, it was too direct a hit for me, in my drab cubicle, with my brain still chanting “I’m alive, I’m alive.” I sidestepped into Tomo Nakayama’s song “Magnolias,” written for Philip Seymour Hoffman. I put it on repeat and kept waiting for the part when Nakayama sings “Sometimes it’s hard to know, who you are waiting for.” Sometimes it’s hard to know that everything we do is a love letter. And every love letter is a goodbye.