Usually when an artist, actor, or celebrity of note dies, the alert gives a quick one line explanation of exactly why you should know this person. “John Q, backup singer for the Flying Wallabees…” or “Adele McManohan, artist of the painting Godzilla in Spring…”—something like that.
This morning, I looked at my phone and read the alert.
David Bowie dies of cancer aged 69.
No preface. No lead-in. No explanation as to what he was famous for. Just—boom.
And not under “Entertainment” but “Top Stories.”
That’s how big Bowie was. The man lived a life in the arts for five decades. He pushed boundaries, lived a life both dangerous and glorious, and he continued to do what he loved right up to his death.
And yet I have not always been a fan of David Bowie.
I remember turning off my MTV whenever Bowie’s bizarre modern art videos would come on my television screen. (This is pre-“China Girl,” mind you.) Things really didn’t improve on my opinion of Bowie when I saw The Hunger. The movie bored me to tears. So for many, many years, I did not really ”get” David Bowie. He was literally the Doctor Who of music to me: Something I should have liked him, but just didn’t understand.
Okay, hold on—there was one song I really liked featuring David Bowie. The duet “Under Pressure” alongside Queen. That was pretty tight. Still is. Especially when you hear it like this…
But if you were to ask me today “You dig David Bowie?” I would not hesitate to say “Yes.” It’s been, more-or-less, a decade of getting to know the Thin, White Duke.
In 2006, I went to see the Christopher Nolan thriller, The Prestige. The draw for me was Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, two actors I always enjoyed on screen. So focused I was on seeing them under Nolan’s direction that I remained unaware of David Bowie in the cast, playing Nikola Tesla. I was skeptical…
Then David Bowie made this entrance…
Screw Bale and Jackman. I wanted a Tesla movie, directed by Nolan, starring Bowie.
When I married Pip, I knew full well of her mad love for the Goblin King. She told me the story of her formative years watching Labyrinth and “feeling funny” whenever Jareth appeared on screen. I didn’t quite understand if it were the shoes or the hair, but on finally seeing the movie, it became abundantly clear…
…how he was making a lot of people feeling funny .
Pip, however, introduced me to music from David Bowie that were her favorites but not necessarily the favorites of MTV. “Changes” was never a song I liked, neither was “Fame” for that matter. “Heroes” and “Diamond Dogs,” however, struck home with me, making me curious to re-listen to other songs like “Cat People” and “Space Oddity” with a new appreciation. When Guardians of the Galaxy hit theatres, both my daughter and I latched on to “Moonage Daydream” along with a whole new generation of fans. You just can’t beat a soundtrack like this…
Pip introduced me to B-side Bowie like “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”…and I like what I was hearing.
The tipping point, however, was our trip to Chicago. It was me, Pip, Boom, P.C. Haring, and Alyson Grauer on Halloween, and we paid Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art a visit. Originally in town for an All Blacks exhibition game, the David Bowie Is… exhibit was making its sole stop in the United States in the Windy City; and I was not going to allow Pip to miss it.
I walked into the exhibit appreciating Bowie. I walked out of the exhibit a fan.
There was a lot I didn’t know about Bowie. His passion for reading. His love of theatre. His wide and varied interests extending to art, science, and philosophy. David Bowie was a complex individual who believed that immersion was the best way to understand a subject. He was also constantly redefining himself, his sound, and his image. From the flamboyant Ziggy Stardust, to his dark, nihilistic phase, to his upbeat pop sound of the 80’s, David Bowie refused to be defined by one style. The more I found out about Bowie, the more fascinating he became. I think Aly said it best on Facebook: “When I walked out of the exhibit, I felt like I knew him.”
Blackstar was released three days ago. Pip and I were talking about getting it, but never got around to the downloading. This morning, I listened to what Bowie knew would be his final album. Blackstar reminded of the earlier-mentioned Queen and their final album, Innuendo. (Yes, there was one more album, but Made in Heaven was released after front man Freddie Mercury’s death.) The album, in particular its final track “The Show Must Go On,” was Freddie’s goodbye. He knew he was sick. Really sick. This was his final curtain and he took it. Blackstar was just that—a love letter and final gift for the fans; and it is nothing less than powerful.
What can I as a writer take away from the legacy of David Bowie? Pip really knocks it out of the park with her look back at the David Bowie Is… exhibit, but for me David Bowie encourages me to demand more from myself. He threw himself into his art—whatever art that captured his fancy at the time, of course—and never really stopped learning. He challenged limitations. He took chances. He also explored outside his comfort zone. Why limit yourself to one love? So I write. I podcast. I cook. I bake. I run. I skate. I indulge in gaming of all kinds. I still dabble in astronomy. And there are still things I want to do. That is the legacy of Bowie for writers—and artists of any background—everywhere. Why constrain yourself? Take a chance. And if you fail, you fail. Pick yourself up, and try again.
And make sure to laugh at life. Maybe, at times, Bowie’s sense of humor would be downright sinister, but he never hesitated to laugh a little at life. And at himself.
This quote is a favorite quote of Pip’s. Yeah. I can totally see that.