You must wish to consume yourself in your own flame: how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes!
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
I know when to go out, and when to stay in. Get things done.
— David Bowie, “Modern Love”
In our current climate, obsessed to the point of madness and delusion with “innovation” and “making”, it is easy to lose touch with the fact that every act of creation is also one of destruction. The greatest “creators”, it must be remembered, are also great destructors, willing to tear down that which is in their way to make room for the new, the bold, the hitherto-only-imagined. We tend to think of the arts as a safe space for this destruction, a place in the æther of our shared collective unconscious where seismic tremors can occur without hurting or maiming or putting people out of their homes; and yet, the greatest artists are ones who have an uncanny ability to give us something at the same time that they make us realize what it is we are giving up by receiving that artistic gift.
David Bowie, it is safe to say, did not set out to be an artist who would revel in displacement; it was an artistic mode that was thrust upon him due to the shifting ground upon which he attempted to find his footing as he made his way from a despondent post-war boyhood into an adult life in the creative arts. While so many other towering titans of ’60s and ’70s classic rock were anointed pop royalty as pimply inexperienced teenagers, the erstwhile David Jones slogged through every facet of the 1960s entertainment industry, trying to find some way to make it: garage-y rhythm and blues, torch songs, earnest sitting-on-a-stool folk, theater, cabaret, mime. The interstellar leitmotif of Bowie’s career, set into motion upon the penning of his first hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity”, is more happenstance than predetermined calculation: he was an artist who was not above penning a tune ripped from the day’s headlines that played off of a popular film of the time. After all, he’d been gigging for nearly a decade, throwing paint against the wall in quasi-desperation.
“Space Oddity”, and the alien persona that became his only real recurring costume, if you can call it that, throughout his career, resonates within his body of work, in retrospect, so profoundly because of its overriding theme of isolation. Bowie’s work shudders with this loneliness, no matter which era of his oeuvre you pinpoint; space is infinite but within its black embrace we are all in our own soundproof cocoon, floating. It is the loneliness of the artist, true: the lone figure that must pursue his or her art to the exclusion of all of those around him or her. But we are all individuals, we are all people existing in our own skin, in our own envelopes of sensations and communication. As much as we love each other, and must love each other, we all live and die alone, in a sense; Bowie’s art was a pursuit of this individual vision, often at the cost of his own sanity, health, and happiness.
The release of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, can now be seen as a parting communication from a man withholding crucial information of his own imminent demise. The album is immaculate, dense, quivering, filled with his in-the-mic inhalations as if to tease us with the immediacy of his breath from beyond the pale; listening to the album, it almost seems calculating, taunting us with the loss we didn’t know was coming. Bowie has, of course, done this before, numerous times. The most infamous occasion remains the way in which he dissolved The Spiders From Mars, his early-’70s glam rock band with whom he found his first wave of global stardom: on July 3, 1973, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, before the final song of the final show of the band’s Aladdin Sane UK tour (that was scheduled to continue on to America in the fall), Bowie emitted a nervous chuckle before telling the audience, “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”
No one in the audience that night knew that he’d release the bleak and masterful Diamond Dogs with a totally new band the next year, that 1975 would see him top the US singles charts with “Fame”, that the 1970s in general would be a decade where pop culture festered within the shadow of his towering cavalcade of rock and soul personas, that through the 1980s and beyond he would be elevated to a rare pantheon of godlike musical icons; to all watching as he led his band through “Rock and Roll Suicide”, he was leaving music for good, at what would seem to be the height of fame and influence, right when he was needed most. It was a betrayal, cruel, and indifferent to the wishes of so many. Most rock legends would have been content to build a multi-decade career merely on the back of what Bowie had built up between 1971 and 1973, a glitter-fied jack-booted intergalactic maelstrom of pouted and anthemic heft that could have gone on forever. Bowie could have passed away this past weekend just like Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister did just a few weeks prior, wearing the tight pants of his youth into an old age of standard-bearing consistency.
This is why almost every obituary of Bowie that you have seen this week refers to him as a “chameleon”: once he betrayed UK’s Glam Nation in 1973, his every stylistic shift has evermore been proof of his inability to stay any kind of comprehensible course. When you take in the life of an artist, though, every station of that life can be seen as a stage that had to be passed through. A teenager playing enthusiastic r&b with his band; a 20-year-old with long flowing hair playing guitar in a field; an emaciated cocaine addict dabbling in twin obsessions with Crowley and Hitler whilst living as a shut-in in a lavish NYC hotel; a tan and rested man nearing 40 playing energetic popular music in a sharp suit to a stadium of fans; an older gentleman smartly dressed and happily married: these are not betrayals of a cause so much as they are the results of life choices that, seen as a whole, make up a life that is real and human and true. Nothing was destined and no single point was inevitable without work, thought, and unintended consequences. If it took determination for a straight-line artist like Lemmy to put on a bullet-belt every day, it takes just as much determination for any human to wake up in the morning and decide to go through with the next 24-hour portion of life, chaotic and unknowable as the future always is and will be for those of us who must fly through it on a course via the ever-present now.
The difference with Bowie was that he was willing to crater any recent sandcastles he had created within his musical sphere if it meant that there was a chance to fulfill a future endeavor that was still just an idea in his head; he was perhaps uniquely able to be bursting with creativity even while in the midst of otherwise purely destructive behavior. An artist interested in a stable career would have stuck with what works; decades later, that artist can thank the fans for sticking with them through shared perseverance. But Bowie kept moving on, constantly putting his audience in the position of being behind the times. He did this because he needed to, and he did it because his audience needed it too. Time and time again in his career, Bowie was no more at pains than when he felt forced to fulfill a musical role that no longer felt appropriate. If art is a selfish act of needing to express something, it is also desperately selfless when committed by someone as visionary as Bowie. Throughout his career, the line between what he did for himself, what he did for his art, and what he did for his audience was blurred to the point of obliteration.
David Bowie was not the most financially successful musical artist of all time, although he was certainly rich; he was not the highest charting musician, nor did he even necessarily leave behind the most bountiful treasure trove of hit singles and albums, although he had enormous success over five decades and leaves behind a remarkable discography. He played his share of stadiums, but he was not always the most dependable filler of enormo-domes, and in fact at many points in his career he clearly eschewed touring when it would have been enormously lucrative. And yet, more than any of his 1960s and 1970s peers, he is perhaps the most universal musical and artistic presence of the modern era, in any medium. You didn’t always need to even hear his music to be part of it — by a certain point in his career, he had come to represent something much larger than just a man who wrote and sang and played songs. His persistent investigations into what it meant to be a person, to have a gender, to have a style, to have emotions, eventually entered into the feedback loop of a worldwide popular culture until his every look and every move began to have global significance far more trenchant than album sales could reveal. Through it all, his outsider self began to reveal the human within; being an active participant in his ongoing project of life and art was to enter into this nebulous transaction. If you are a person that has found the news of his passing more profound than is typical for you upon finding out that celebrity has passed, perhaps it is because you were more involved in this artistic project than you might have realized.
Bowie doesn’t leave behind a candle-in-the-wind discography of uniting anthems: instead, what we mourn is the cessation of this artistic being, a charitable presence that we assumed would be there humming in the background throughout our world’s cyclical machinations. When his young voice urged us to “turn and face the strange”, he had no way of knowing that this was a powerful strumming exhortation that would reverberate throughout the ages like a guitar feeding back endlessly. While so many of his cohort endeavored to protect a dying flame of a bygone era, Bowie’s career and his art showed us that things do indeed change, tumultuously. Seen in that light, then, and with the help of his final musical project, it is now up to us to face the change and face the strange of a world where he has moved on from his mortal form.