I am just wrecked. Last night, I couldn’t even get the toothpaste onto my toothbrush. David Bowie’s death has really shaken me to the core.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m no Bowie superfan, but the music of his that I enjoy is music that I really love. And my taste in his work spans most of his career; name anyone else you know that owns the first Tin Machine album. He was a consummate artist in every sense of the word. He made music that influenced generations, that gave voice to the fear and angst of so many, that helped shelter all of us misfits. His fearless androgyny and chameleon style showed everyone that it was okay to be yourself.
I stayed up watching CNN for a little while last night, and the one thing that struck me was that they couldn’t quite describe Bowie adequately. Part of that was because the news was maybe an hour old at that point and no one had time to prepare anything. But I think the bigger part of that was the fact that David Bowie simply defied description. He refused to be pinned down to one genre, one style, one persona. They kept referring to Ziggy Stardust as if that were the only persona Bowie created for himself. But no one mentioned Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke. They didn’t talk about his crossdressing or fluid sexuality. They mentioned a bit about the different musical risks he took, but there was more talk about his retreat from the “spotlight,” as if being out of the public eye was a bad thing.
Thing is, we never really got the real David Jones from Brixton. We got Bowie and all his alter egos. He was a guarded and private man who generally preferred to keep his personal life off the stage. I respect that. Like Bob Dylan, David Bowie created a public face that protected his private self. But where Dylan has always remained the same infuriatingly cryptic smart ass, somewhat tempered by age and humor, Bowie was almost literally a chameleon. He blended in with the background so effectively that no one knew where one ended and the other began. That was clearly by design. When he essentially retired from music in the early 2000’s, that was cool. He and wife Iman lived their lives quietly, venturing out once in a while, but mostly content to let the machine rattle on without them. His sudden return in 2013 was welcomed, but not hyped. When Blackstar was released last Friday, it was a happy event, but no one could have ever anticipated what it foretold.
I’m a little angry about that, honestly. While I try very hard to respect the privacy of the public figures I admire, I expect some kind of announcement about big life changes. Weddings, babies, divorces, etc. should be acknowledged. So should illness and impending death. I feel like Bowie cheated us somehow by keeping his illness to himself and not directly telling anyone (see the major themes of Blackstar for the obvious indirect acknowledgement). I have no right to feel that way, but I do. I don’t like being blindsided like this. Like I said at the beginning, I’m just wrecked by this news and I know I’m not the only one. But it isn’t really surprising, given Bowie’s tendency toward privacy. Freddie Mercury did pretty much the same thing; he announced his illness and died a few days later. Freddie and Bowie were friends, so maybe he just took a page from that book and rewrote it to suit his needs. In that sense, this sudden news is really quintessentially Bowie.