The Death of David Bowie and the Life of a Hero
The deaths of those we grew up watching and listening to, frequently regarded as obelisks for the people we ultimately become and much of what we believe, are creeping reminders of our own looming mortality.
Musicians and movie stars, poets and politicians, scientists and sports figures, artists and authors — each passing of someone famous who was important in our lives etches yet another inescapable stanza of tablature towards the last note we ultimately play, although it’s unbeknownst to us when or where the final curtain shall fall. Alas, the tablature of the true greats is signposts and lighthouses left behind to guide and inspire.
Anyone who grew up during the 1970s remembers the unmistakable effervescence of David Bowie. His nearly a half-century of musical recordings, his immense catalog of live performances, his extravagant alter-egos and charismatic stage personalities which emerged in unpredictable costume changes and outlandish personas, his intriguing musical choices, and collaborations, all crowned by his graceful maturity over a remarkably productive period of 69 years and 2 days — he was an indelible legacy leaving us not only with a rich musical songbook but an unequaled pinnacle of self-confidence in a very public journey of self-discovery, interrupted occasionally by the redefinition of his own identity. On stage or off, his was such a powerful self-assurance — what we call “being comfortable in your own skin” — that his fearlessness inspired countless other musicians and artists, as well as millions of admirers and fans scattered around the world, sprouting courage within others who wanted to pursue their own sense of artistry and means of personal expression. Before there was Lady Gaga, before there was Michael Jackson, before there was Boy George, before punk, funk, and disco — there was Bowie.
Bowie appealed to just about everyone. Rockers bought his albums and played them faithfully until they were so scratched up that most of us had to go out and re-buy them again as cassettes, and then later CDs. R&B fans regarded him as soulfully one of their own, even though he was both very British and very White. The Punk movement, who disrespected just about anybody, most of all themselves, revered Bowie as their patriarch and pathfinder; recall Sid Vicious often wearing a Bowie t-shirt onstage. He became a hero to gays, bisexuals, and transgenders — long before such alternative lifestyles were even the least bit acceptable within mainstream society. Indeed, Bowie was the quintessential risk-taker. He obliterated musical barriers in what was arguably the most creative and competitive period of pop-music history. More lasting even than all the pop hits and familiar tunes we love and song lyrics indelibly committed to memory, he tore down walls between divided peoples.
Bowie’s concerts were often filled with freaks, audiences from all different walks of life’s spectrum, a somewhat surprising discovery I came to realize firsthand at the one and only live performance of Bowie I attended, which was during the Glass Spider Tour during the mid-1980s. He’s the only rocker I’ve ever come across who drew such an eclectic following, in a musical genre that’s often not nearly as tolerant as it pretends to be. Come to think of it, we could have used a lot more of Bowie himself, and certainly more Bowie proteges, especially in more recent times. Sadly, since the height of his long career as a songwriter, recording artist, and live performer, popular music has become increasingly fragmented, even insular some might say. Music doesn’t bring us together anymore as it once did so much as it’s carved us into sequestered tribes, largely divided by age, race, gender, and genre. Bowie was that one-man campfire, a unique wall of sound, and an unequivocal spirit whom just about everyone wanted to gather around and sing along with.
No doubt, Bowie’s stage presence never appeared to be an act. His means of self-expression were as genuine as they were incalculable. Perhaps part of this authenticity stemmed from his interracial marriage to supermodel Imam over nearly a quarter-century, in a slippery profession where matrimonial longevity often gets measured in months, rather than years. Perhaps it was Bowie openly embracing the gay community during the early 1970s which could have very well derailed his career in its tracks before departed the popularity station en route to global super-stardom. Perhaps it was the legend of Ziggy Stardust he created, that whimsical alter ego of theatrical experimentation that caught on and ultimately became so successful that it later sometimes impeded his ability to move in new directions. Maybe it was his intriguing series of collaborations with others in the music business — from Freddie Mercury to John Lennon, to Mick Jagger, to Bing Crosby. Bowie wasn’t just a showman. He brought about a sense of musical togetherness.
Each Bowie song touched listeners in a different way and no two impressions of him nor summarization of the impact he leaves are quite the same. For me, my moment of inspirational epiphany was “Heroes,” the song he originally wrote and recorded back in 1977, but which, oddly enough, seemed to gain more definition over the decades. “Heroes” gave meaning to the tremendous sacrifices made by those who survived various natural and man-made disasters, and honored the memories of those who didn’t. One of the most astounding few minutes of any rock performance ever was Bowie opening the “Concert for New York City” at Madison Square Garden in 2001, when he opened a gargantuan entertainment benefit just weeks after 9-11 and sang from the stage while the tears of first-responders, policemen, and firefighters streamed down upon the faces of those who were true, heroes.
Bowie told us, “we can be heroes, just for one day.” Or, just one song perhaps.
There’s a powerful poignancy to those simple lyrics. Good deeds do not necessarily require superhuman strength nor herculean courage. Heroism only requires the conviction of one noble act, a day at a time by someone willing to try and make a difference.
Thank you, David Bowie, for being a hero to so many of us, in music and far beyond the boundaries, you broke down, not only for just a day but for a lifetime.
Fame can take interesting men and thrust mediocrity upon them.
I’ve always felt bemused at being called the chameleon of rock. Doesn’t a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?
Trust nothing but your own experience.
— David Bowie “What I’ve Learned” (Esquire magazine)