– James Esch
“The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” – David Bowie
Just another January morning, a week to go before the semester begins, and I’m sitting in the recliner trying out a new text editor for Windows called Writemonkey (which by the way is an amazing distraction-free writing tool with smart Markdown support, thumbs up so far). I’ve been in that pre-semester zone – call it a manic funk – wherein I can spend all day trying out apps, tweaking, copying/pasting and gathering files, touching up the syllabi, suddenly deciding I need to update a wordpress site and forward a domain to it…a buzzing of the mind to the point of burnout and self-shaming fury…you get the picture. I’ve been at odds the last few days. Last Friday I got a haircut in Downingtown, thought about shopping to pass the time, drove aimlessly home instead. On Saturday, our family ate a late lunch at the Mexican restaurant on Gay street. Afterward, I popped into the Mad Platter, gift certificate in my wallet, intending to browse for a new record. I couldn’t focus. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to hear. I apologized to the clerk and went back to the time-sucking personal computer and its incessant tweaks and fiddles. I’ve been getting to sleep late, like 2 or 3 in the morning, suffering from rat brain, virtually grinding my soul’s teeth in the final days before the 15 week Bataan death march sets off. The syllabi are done but not quite, as I dither and squander. This morning, my stomach is upset from the morning tea, I’m not sure if my body is cold or hot. My wife enters the room and tells me David Bowie died at age 69, from cancer.
Shit. Who knew? He’d been on my radar because of the new album Blackstar, which has gotten positive press and endorsements from friends, and because an actor/singer on the Colbert show a few weeks ago had covered one of Bowie’s numbers from the show Lazarus at the New York Theater Workshop, and the song wasn’t at all bad. Blackstar was prominently displayed in the record store when I couldn’t make up my mind about what to get. To that extent, Bowie was once again occupying a little portion of my mindspace, and once he plants himself there, you always wonder, what’s he up to now, because he rarely stayed in one place or pose for very long. Just the other day his birthday was announced in my Facebook newsfeed. I acknowledged him with satisfaction and envy: at least Bowie still looks good after all these years. Then this. It was a gut punch. I don’t consider myself a die-hard fan of Bowie, but I am a fan, have about 8 or 9 of his albums, and I respect his long career of artistic risk-taking. He was a compelling performer, a theatrical musical chameleon. He’s an artist who for all the persona changes and gender-blending swings of fashion, has remained consistently relevant and edgy. An avant-pop icon. How did he pull that off?
What I think hit me so bluntly this morning is the unexpectedness of it. Bowie has always seemed perennially youthful to me, a study in graceful aging. My first response was a sneaking sensation, that at my age, I’m going to be hearing a lot more of this sort of thing; the rock and pop stars of my youth will die off at a faster rate, each obituary adding another mark of age and impending demise, to bolster the many suggestive corporal impairments that have already shipped their bags of stuff into my life: the thumb I injured in a handtruck accident back in November that hasn’t healed, the degrading hearing loss, the 100 % dependance on reading glasses, the reluctance to move out of a lounge chair, the salty thinning hair, and general reluctance to try very hard any more in the hustle bustle parade. I’m more than ever willing to let youthful actors strut their stuff, so long as they leave me alone with a bottle of Scotch and a book to read.
This couldn’t have happened to Bowie. Only 69? An 18 month battle with cancer? Yes, incontrovertibly, yes. He kept it secret, and I guess that’s for the best. But that’s the crux of it. None of us in the hoi polloi had been primed: it comes like a cold stab of winter wind. Death says, you can’t have him in your life any more. A point reached, a period for the deceased, a comma or semi-colon for us. Before, after. What of before? Bowie was a liquid signifier, shapeshifter, and to the extent that we identified with his persona, we could participate in those whispy postmodern promises that graft so neatly on to the scaffold of capitalist belief, in being anything, in the capability of redefining ourelves, of coming at life from oblique angles, disrupting all models and norms. Creative destruction. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx put it. We might not make those changes successfully, and Bowie certainly had his share of flops and head-scratching detours, but we admire him (and when brave enough, ourselves) for the sense of fullness in pressing the effect, the experience quaffed from brim to dregs like that Sinatra song, wearing any costume we might dare to put on. Bowie occupied that liminal territory, where rebellion joins the popular, where cross overs happen. For a certain age group (mine included), this is what he stands for. He crossed boundaries with integrity intact.
Every generation has its touchstone losses that rattle and echo through the inter-tubes of social chatter. Bowie’s death is clearly one of them, judging from the waves of reaction. To me, he’s been like a cryptic big brother into all kinds of cool shit you’re too small to get. He’s part of the soundtrack of those 70’s and 80’s formative years.
I come from a whitebread, square household and my musical coming of age came late. One of my earliest exposures to the world of rock came in the guise of a TV commercial, I think it was a Two Guys spot, for Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album. Frankly, it weirded me out. I couldn’t process. Who were these gender-bending dog people and their sexy/evil glares? I wasn’t sure, but the image seared itself into my memory. Another early exposure (can’t remember which came first) was the Bing Crosby Christmas special and the infamous “Little Drummer Boy” duet. There was something anxious and exciting about that meeting of generations, so fraught with mutual misunderstanding. While Bing looks like he’s not quite sure who he’s singing with and doesn’t trust him a whit, and Bowie looks nervous, insecure, like maybe he’s just committed career suicide, the performance for me (naive as I was), was unforgettable. A boundary crossed, a door opened.
Soon to follow were the comfortable rooms in my memory palace furnished in oft-played FM radio cuts – “Changes” and “Ziggy Stardust” and “Major Tom” and “Fame” and “Golden Years.” I couldn’t even identify those subgenres back then (I was too young, too uncool). Now I know all about Glam and Philly Soul and the thin white duke phase. Later I would discover his fascinating work with Brian Eno from the late 70’s era–Low and Station-to-Station and Heroes. When MTV became a thing in the 80’s, one of my early favorite videos was “Ashes to Ashes” from the Scary Monsters album. I never tired of it, long after I’d soured on Duran Duran, ABC, a Flock of Seagulls, Boy George, and company. Memory of the video serves up images of sad clowns and saturated, bleeding TV colors, non linear edits, something made to be seen and heard, an aesthetic multimedia whatchamacalit that dove into subconscious reservoirs and defied rational descriptions. It was something new, or felt so at the time.
Bowie on screen, in his videos and film parts, was riveting. Check out his latest video Lazarus and watch how his image physically seizes the camera as if in a chokehold. Talk about stage presence! There was often a spooky vibe to his incarnations. Before you got used to him, he would morph into something unpredictable. Next thing we knew, we were tapping feet along with “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love”. He defined a new, safer 1980’s normal for a couple years, and then it seemed anybody could like Bowie. His majestic collaboration with Queen on the song “Under Pressure” helped me to survive the crappy 80’s in ways I can’t articulate. It just was. Certain songs you need in your life, right place, right time. As pop music devolved into junky digitized spam, Bowie managed to find a way to jet ahead and make it all seem cool again. You never knew what you were going to get. You could be sure to get something, though. Something to take notice of.
So yes, predictably, these passings of stars force us to pause, rewind, revisit our past selves. But each loss has its distinct flavor and color. This one makes me wince. I think I will go back to the Mad Platter very soon and spend my gift certificate on Blackstar. I can’t think of any other way to celebrate the man’s life. We feel sad for someone we did not know personally. There’s something odd and maybe unwise about that, until I come to see how it’s myself I’m lamenting. The me I was (and wasn’t), and on the other side of that punctuation mark, the me I will (and won’t) become. It’s me and the people I actually know that I’m feeling sad for. We who’ve shared that musical ethos. The golden years, golden days, gone forever.
Bowie in retrospect makes me think (improbably) of the knight played by Max von Sydow in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The knight kept evading his ever present nemesis, surviving, making new plays and strategems to stall the Reaper. When Death had him checkmated, Max “accidentally” upset the chessboard. Death just grinned and waited his turn. So it goes. We think we’re on a journey called life, getting somewhere, then realize it’s got a pattern to it, one that’s been told billions of times with subtle variations. Maybe it’s a game. We make an appearance, stick around a while, make a few moves (some memorable, most not) and then get escorted off the lot. The field of play stays put. Bowie sure made some interesting moves. So many entrances, exits. It was one hell of a film.