A friend and I were speaking recently about the fact that all bad news arrives first thing in the morning – something I’ve come to dislike immensely recently. A week ago I woke, turned on NPR, and prepared to shower. They were playing an older interview with David Bowie, the content of which I can’t readily recall. I presumed it was in promotion of Blackstar, his twenty-fifth album, released two days earlier on his sixty-ninth birthday. As the clip finished, I dipped in under the showerhead to hear the NPR anchor come back in with, “David Bowie: dead at the age of sixty-nine.”
The truth, of course, is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.
Eighteen months quietly battling cancer and a driven focus to leave behind one final masterpiece as a self-epitaph, which he was able to accomplish mere hours before shuffling off this mortal coil. Bowie was never fully a centerpiece in my life, but as I spent this past week thumbing through memories I realized how ever-present his music has been throughout; something I haven’t fully appreciated until now. His desire to leave behind something greater than himself, to not be pulled under by the darkness slowly closing in around him, and to define his death by embracing what life he had left is remarkable in the truest sense of the word.
In proving foresight may be vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft astray,
And leave us not but grief and pain,
For promised joy.
Adrian Belew has one of the funnier memories of when he first met and became Bowie’s guitarist. For some reason I’ve had it stuck in my head that he was the guitarist during Bowie’s Outside tour in 1995, but I’ve confused Belew with Reeves Gabrels. That was the tour Bowie brought along Nine Inch Nails as co-headliners, who were then touring in support of The Downward Spiral. Bowie wasn’t the first to enlist a young, hungry, stardom climbing band to help boost his own image. Neil Young comes to mind with tours that featured Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, and Blind Melon. But Bowie was different. Nine Inch Nails didn’t just play a selection of songs ahead of him; each band transitioned and played into the other’s set. Bowie and Trent Reznor traded songs, and the mash-up of the latter’s dissonant electro-industrial sound backing the former’s crooning voice was amazing to watch in person, and is probably my favorite memory of both performers’ long and illustrious careers, as well as being one of the best concerts I’ve been privileged to see.
Along with Belew’s humorous eulogy, Conan O’Brien put together a selection of clips from when Bowie was a guest on his show, highlighting his sense of humor and willingness to play the comedic foil. (Anyone familiar with Ricky Gervais’ Extras will also remember a viciously funny cameo Bowie made during that show’s second season.)
Much of the press this past week has been focused on the making of Blackstar in the context of Bowie’s final months battling cancer. Two pieces stood out. Musician Tim Lefebvre, who played bass on the album, wrote a moving tribute in Rolling Stone about his time in the studio with Bowie recording the record. And The Guardian published a lengthy article about the making of Blackstar, as well as Bowie’s tangentially related musical, Lazarus.
TV on the Radio posted a photo of when Bowie came by their studio to lay down backing vocals for their track “Province,” off the band’s 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain. “He was so wonderfully unaffected,” they wrote alongside the photo. “As you can see he dressed like a dad. He had no entourage. He asked for no special treatment and made no special demands. I don’t remember but I’m almost positive he didn’t ask for any money. I’ll never forget his New Balance sneakers. In between vocal takes he would ask through the talk back mic ‘Was that alright? What do you think of that harmony?’ […] All of this normalcy seems so fantastic and that is a tragedy of our current world that was not lost on him. […] The purpose of an artist is ultimately to unite. The most courageous ones travel to difficult places so that the rest of don’t have to and we can all feel less alone. There are so many human failings that can mar this beautifully altruistic goal, but Mr. Bowie seemed to have navigated this minefield and remain a humanist first and artist second.”
“Province” is a long-standing favorite of mine, and I’d forgotten about Bowie’s participation in it until his passing. It’s made even more poignant as the song was an anchor point for me during this past year as I watched Kim struggle, literally and figuratively, with the passing of her mother, also from cancer. There were many nights we spent in random shopping mall or motel bars near where her parents lived; laughing one minute, crying the next, trying desperately to hold on to some semblance of bravery. I’m sure the bar staff at each place we ended up at thought we were mental, or high. Probably both. Watching Kim trying to navigate such heartless waters was difficult. I felt useless, and I could not even begin to understand what she was going through. It seems that no matter how well prepared you are, it’s still not enough. It’s never enough. Having lost friends to cancer, having witnessed friends suffer through losing loved ones to cancer or fight cancer themselves (in some cases, both), it makes what Bowie accomplished — the ability to stay singularly focused on leaving the world better than you found it, to give more than you’ve gathered while staring down death — all the more incredible and moving.
I still cry whenever I listen to “Province.” I’ve been playing the song a lot this week.
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
As the week wore on a petition went up asking for Bowie to be depicted on Britain’s £20 note, with another requesting Mars be renamed in his honor. Belgium astronomers dedicated a constellation to the “Starman,” and we were reminded of what a diverse and voracious reader he was. An article in the New York Times reported that “Heroes” was the song being played most following the news of his death. Not really surprising, and I must confess it’s the song I’m most guilty of playing myself whenever Bowie would come to mind. I can’t recall where my history with it first began, but the last time I lived in New York I discovered that my neighborhood bar had it on their jukebox, and it became my habit to play it whenever I stopped by. At some point habit turned into ritual, and now, regardless where I’m at, I always look to play “Heroes” whenever possible.
Bowie performing the song at the Berlin Wall in 1987 is probably his most well-known live rendition of the track, and rightly so. He described being in tears at the time. But for me, it’s the version he did in 1992 at the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness that stands out most. Backed by the surviving members of Queen, his voice, his presence, his… everything… was simply phenomenal.
Far better words than these have been penned already in honor of the man, the artist, the icon. All I have to humbly add is a rekindled passion for the art he created, and a profound reverence for the love and beauty he was able to, on his terms, leave behind. We should all be so lucky. Death is never kind, and cancer particularly cruel and selfish, but what I’ve been reminded of was that Bowie was a true Lazarus. Through each of his personas he died and rose again, and then again and again. And now he has transformed into something else entirely — something he always was, something forever becoming.
Travel well, David.
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me
-David Bowie, “Lazarus”