The first Bowie song I remember hearing had to be either China Girl or Let’s Dance, the title track of the record my music-loving parents played often. I must have been three years old (yes, I can remember back that far, my memory is a steel trap, for better and worse). I can remember the lyrics of both songs setting my little imagination on fire, respectively picturing glitzy red high heels dancing on a field of blue (part Wizard of Oz, I suppose) or the singer clutching a Chinese porcelain doll. Seeing Labyrinth for the first time, the connection was made between the Goblin King and the singer of these songs. His presence in the film, and voice blasting from our speakers was electrifying to my toddler self. Nothing has changed.
Now that he’s gone, and man does it hurt to type that, I realize I believed him to be immortal, a fixed star in the artistic firmament who would ever gift us with his talent. It’s not fair. He was otherworldly from the beginning, immune to such human grotesqueries as age, the ravages of time, and death. Wasn’t he? Isn’t he? I simply cannot grasp that he’s not alive. I’m not ready.
Of course, I’ve been through this before with cherished artists. I grew up in the grunge (read: heroin) era in Seattle, after all. If you’re a regular reader, you know the profound effect Kurt Cobain’s suicide had (has) on me. For years we watched as a whole horrifying parade of local musicians died of drug overdoses or were murdered (by themselves or others). And it doesn’t stop. When the art is that fucking good, it’s likely coming from a place of intense existential experience, often in the form of extreme suffering. But not Bowie.
He could do anything. He could rock any look. He could play anywhere on the gender spectrum. He seemed to reinvent himself constantly, yet was always himself. He exuded a particular grace and elegance, especially after age fifty. I remember comparing his tasteful, beautifully cut hair and clothes (shout-out to Iman, who undoubtedly influenced his choices) to those of his peers–reuniting their bands endlessly, squeezing themselves into the leathers and tees of their twenties and looking absolutely ridiculous, frightening even. He was a classy, stylish dude.
That voice, though. I heard it described as powdery, and thought, yes! Richly ethereal. Unmistakable. Iconic. Haunting. I recently indulged in a love affair with Arcade Fire’s song Reflektor, which features backing vocals by the Starman himself. Part of what made that song so transcendent for me was Bowie’s exquisite lower register adding depth to the final lines of the song (“…thought you were praying to the Resurrector…”). For all of Win Butler’s lovely vocal styling, he simply could not reach Bowie’s level of profundity that appeared as automatic as breathing for the man.
He influenced countless artists with his creativity, his risk-taking, his innovative work. My own personal musical god, Cobain, featured a cover of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, during Nirvana’s Unplugged session. The song clearly spoke to him, lyrics which may as well have prophesied his untimely death (“…I must have died alone, a long, long time ago…”). I must thank David Bowie for inspiring the music that is a seminal part of my existence. On my way to work today, I enjoyed a moment of pure tranquil bliss listening to Cobain’s cover in my car, the morning sun shining on my face. I knew implicitly Bowie had led me to this moment, and it made me smile.
His music is woven into the fabric of my experience of the world. It was there when I was tiny, learning to dance and enjoy music. It was there when I was in high school, coming out of car speakers, infecting me with nostalgia. It was there during wee-hours karaoke sessions, when we belted out Modern Love or quieted the room with Heroes. That my first Bowie record was Let’s Dance, and was his fifteenth, well, I could name songs and their personal meanings forever.
I’m downloading Blackstar and pressing play with a heavy heart, grateful for this parting gift. For Bowie so loved the world he left us this special, dedicated, poignant final work.