David Bowie released his final album in his final hours and then boarded his flight home. Now what?
On a foggy morning in February of 1985, I snuck into the Stockdale 6 Cinema in Bakersfield, California with my sister to watch The Breakfast Club.
Before the opening credits, this card:
And that was it. I knew someone, somewhere had written something just for me. And my life, the way I thought about words and people and music and art and whatever else we do that keeps us from not just pulling over on the side of the road and sticking our thumb out; or whatever drives us to do that…began.
David Bowie died yesterday at the age of 69. Not nearly enough time for an immortal. The thing about Bowie is those who believed in him, and I am one, believed in him wildly and wholly. It’s not the type of thing where I’ll judge you if you’re not an acolyte of Bowie, but if you are, it makes knowing you a lot easier. There’s certain information he imbued over a half century that has morphed and curdled and sneaked into every aspect of the conversation. Pop culture was his creation, and if you don’t get that, I cannot help you. He came and went in a spaceship. I believe that.
He was demonstrably the world’s most prolific musician. He released his final album, Blackstar, on his deathbed but forgot to include the part about him dying. He admitted once in an interview that in America he is consummately the mulleted, androgynous alien with lots of glitter and eye makeup trapped in a skin-tight body suit. In his native country, he was a constant writer, musician and artist from South London. Somewhere between the immortal extraterrestrial on one continent and that most treasured of all grins on the other, was the real man.
And that man he was was always the relatable assemblage of the who we aspired to. As otherworldly as he was, it’s Bowie we became. Whether he was going toe-to-toe with Bing Crosby or Freddie Mercury or Mick Jagger, it was Bowie whose dancing shoes we always put ourselves in. The inner-most-Bowie of you could find the courage to unironically sing out your most ridiculous thoughts while partaking in the laugh with everyone.
To me, so much of Bowie’s work is about life in confinement. His message: time here is finite—was almost a harangue, or at least his most familiar chorus. When we’re young, the possibilities seem innumerable to the point of daunting. But as we work our way into adulthood and we entrench ourselves in a hole we keep digging that takes the form of our beliefs—the magic gives way to the pain of the everydays. And the body follows: The hair falls out and the chest sags and the butt gets dimpled. Sharp-teethed and cat-eyed Bowie found a better way than that; diet or genetics or an extra cup of tea or how he was engineered. The desks and chairs and walls, retirement accounts and oil change appointments. Drop-off and pick ups and trying to keep the food from going bad. Bowie’s was the gift of possibility of inexplicably endless youth along with all the tiny three-minute escapes from those cages of adulthood.
I recall Matthew Weiner’s recent use of Space Oddity over the end credits of “Lost Horizon”, the third-to-last episode of Mad Men. There Don Draper picks up a hippie hitchhiker and they ride in silence together in an ill-fated vessel, the last vestige of his material life: The Cadillac: And I’m floating in a most peculiar way / And the stars look very different today / For here / Am I sitting in a tin can / Far above the world / Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do.
Similarly, Life on Mars? came on on my morning drive and I pulled over and cried a little. The song is not about the moment when everything is morose and dead or wilted, rotted beyond repair, but the recognition of it. And renewal.
It is OK to feel heartbroken now that David Bowie has left the planet. Someday this empire will fall and we’ll not have the choice but to unplug. Ultimately we all shrink and go back to the Earth and the Earth will implode and all this magic dust goes back to space and joins darkness forever. But in the meantime, we draw on that smile that tremor that icy glare and know with tender hearts that it really was us reflected in those eyes.