David Bowie: Where Are We Now?

The first thing I did this morning when I read that David Bowie had died of cancer at age 69 was send a condolence text – not to his widow Iman, but to my best friend Maria.

 

Dec. 20, 1985 – New York, New York, U.S. – Music legend DAVID BOWIE, after a recording session at Atlantic Studios, New York, in December, 1985. (Credit Image: Harrison Funk via ZUMA Wire

 

Bowie was Maria’s North Star, her home base, her lifeline. She fell for him as a teenager and never let go of her love and admiration for his music, his life performances, his creativity as she grew up, got married, had kids. Just as his music evolved and changed and deepened, so did her appreciation for him. When we finally got the kids out the door this morning and made it into our respective offices with the doors closed, we did what we had to: called each other and cried.

“It sounds corny,” Maria sniffled, “but when I was at his concerts, he made me feel like my best self.”

It doesn’t sound corny to anyone who paid half a shred of attention to Bowie’s music. The tributes to and timelines of his work will fill your social media feeds today but I can summarize it thusly: he was magic. Bowie had a fearlessness and inventiveness and weirdness that coaxed a generation of outsider kids into his warm spotlight. He flew his freak flag high so you would bravely raise yours. Through his music, he reassured you that you were part of something bigger than yourself.

His unquestioned ability to do this caused me, in fact, to leave the otherwise excellent movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower shaking my head in dismay. There’s a scene when Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Ezra Miller are driving away from a party and “Heroes” comes on the radio. None of the three characters –quirky teenage outsiders living in America in the early ‘90s – NONE of them know that song. “It defies all logic,” I lectured my own quirky teenagers, who know the song, as we drove home. “Within 15 minutes after Bowie released that song in 1977, every kid who ever felt on the outside knew that song, and they always will, forever more.”

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And that was just “Heroes.” I could make a list of fifty Bowie songs and play connect the dots to what human emotion they unlocked and acknowledge for me, for Maria, for his legion of fans. The amazing thing is that he did it right up until the very end. Three days before he died, he released the video for “Lazarus”, a song off the surprise album Blackstar that came out last week. In it I hear him singing for release – from the sickness none of us knew he had? From pain? From whatever was keeping him from ascending to the next plane? Trust Bowie to make even dying look more stylish and avant garde than the rest of us could pull off.

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Because, I will admit, his death forces me to acknowledge my own mortality. Generation X just took a collective look at themselves and said, “Oh, crap.” As long as your lifelong music idols are still turning out new albums, you’re probably doing ok. You certainly don’t have an excuse for not doing your own best work. So each loss makes us feel a little more vulnerable.

More than that, it upends the weird symbiosis between fan and musician, the one that makes it possible for a musician to be “present” at all the major milestones of a fan’s life: at prom, in the mixtape you gifted your then-lover-now-spouse, as a lullaby, at a family dance party. David Bowie doesn’t know Maria, but he was woven through her life like a weft thread. Even if you aren’t a Bowie fan, you probably have some singer or band who plays that role for you, whose death will cause you to unravel a little bit. And maybe wonder where you are now?

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So today, I mourn Bowie’s death, and for the loss it represents for his family and friends and fans.

But I’m also going to give thanks for those musicians who, with their music and lyrics, help us create the fabric of our own existence.

 
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