I can't believe I just typed "David Bowie, RIP". Such bullshit. I wonder if it will ever seem true.
I didn't have an entry point for Bowie; he was always there, gradually seeping into my tiny reality through classic rock radio. I really have no idea when I got serious about his albums. Whenever it was that I fell for him, I fell so hard that I must've obliterated all memory of not loving him. I couldn't possibly choose a favorite Bowie album; almost all of them are in their own category, as if made by completely separate creatures. The entire span from “The Laughing Gnome” through to Blackstar is my favorite (yes, with some exceptions…). I wish I could remember how it all really started.
Maybe you’re like me. At some point in your life, you hear or read someone's opinion that Bowie is a genius. That such-and-such is one of the greatest albums of all time. Oh, you mean the “ground control to Major Tom” guy? You undertake a delving beyond his dozens of radio hits. Maybe you rent out Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust or "Heroes" from your local library. Maybe one of them grabs you.
You cycle through the phases of Bowie in concert with the phases of your young life. You come to form opinions and impressions--this is how I feel about Low, this is what I think about Diamond Dogs. You formulate these stances and you leave those albums alone for a while, because there are so many more.
Bowie doesn't wait for you; he keeps putting out albums. While the rest of his contemporaries fade into belligerent irrelevance, Bowie is making music that sounds modern if not futuristic, vibrant, good. He forms allegiances with musical heroes from your generation; he tours with them. You go through binge after Bowie binge as he keeps reenergizing your interest. He rereleases his old albums, and you only have them on cassettes taped from vinyl so you buy them. It's been a year or two since you've given Aladdin Sane a thorough listen, and you think to yourself, this isn't how I remember this album at all.
Bowie disappears from public life for ten years, finally giving you a chance to get caught up, soak in his legacy. Maybe you’ve got enough life experience now to begin to comprehend what he was expressing, the scope of his influence, how the songs you’ve loved were also songs that changed everything. You marvel at how long it seemed to take the world to catch up to Bowie, how in many ways it still hasn’t. Then out of nowhere, an album called The Next Day, with the most brilliant cover art you’ve seen this decade. The songs are fresh, eclectic, and Bowie sounds more energetic than he has since Earthling. You wonder if he could retake the music world.
You hear he's working on a new album, inspired by jazz and Kendrick Lamar. If it were any other rock god in his 60s you would roll your eyes, but it's Bowie. He releases the album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday. Against all odds, it's even better than The Next Day. You're listening to it on Friday going 'how is this possible'. It's one of the weirdest and most emotionally resonant things he's ever done, and that, is saying...
You wake up on Monday and Bowie has moved on from your plane of existence. As a popular quote from the day suggests, you temper your sadness with a flood of gratitude that you managed to exist at the same time as Bowie.
He's no more dead to you than he has ever been, though. You never knew the man and never hoped to. There's no dissipation in the relationship the two of you had. You admire him even more, maybe, for orchestrating his own exit like the genius he is. But there's this brand new album, and all the other ones. You don't even cry, keeping it together all day. You get home, and the radio is on. You hear "Starman" for the fourth time that day and you finally lose it.
Bowie gave us a lot more than just music, of course. I couldn't appreciate it as a small-minded kid growing up in shit town U.S.A. and failing to fit in. Bowie was on a different planet from me. My world was a few square miles; his was the entire rest of the known universe. I was lucky to catch an occasional glimpse of his world, but in the end I imagine I have him to thank for making any of it visible. Bowie was incomprehensible from that little world, and I had to get out. Without him, I might never have known.
There aren't many famous people I consider heroes, and I don't know that I'd even say Bowie is one. As I sit here on the cusp of age 40, though, there's one thing Bowie has taught me, one silly little lesson that weighed heavily on me despite its insignificance: some people don't get lame just because they get old. You can be in your sixties and still pay attention to what's relevant in music. You can age gracefully without becoming a bore. You don't have to retreat into blind nostalgia and start liking shitty music. Maybe I won't be so lucky, but it is possible.
Then again, Bowie was superhuman, so I probably shouldn't get my hopes up. I'll take their word for it that they've cremated his body and that he's physically gone, but all it means to me is that he's made his last earthly music. I'm still learning from Bowie and I doubt I'll ever get to a point where that ceases. I listened to Diamond Dogs for the first time in a while a few days ago (one of my favorite Bowie albums…). "We Are The Dead" came on, and all I could think was, this isn’t how I remember this song at all…