My Metroland Column from December 28, 2016
On January 8, 2016, David Bowie turned 69. His wife, Iman, knew something the world didn’t. Her husband was dying.
She tweeted: “I will love you til i die….”
Bowie’s album Blackstar made its debut on his birthday.
Two days later he died.
I hold David Bowie in the same class of genius that contains the likes of Nikola Tesla and Harry Houdini.
Bowie’s death served as harbinger of what a brutal cycle around the sun 2016 intended to be.
As his finale, Bowie left us with yet another brilliant score, Blackstar, in which he foretold his death. Blackstar typified Bowie’s genre-ignoring style. More a librettist than a lyricist, at any point in his career, when the public thought they’d pinned him down, he changed course and explored a new path.
There was but one constant: artistic integrity and personal dignity, maintained even as he approached death.
No grief porn emanated from the artist who gave us Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, and Let’s Dance. The musical legacy he left us is priceless.
His death, both quiet and shrouded in privacy, fit the pattern of his life. Renowned for his glamorous and extensive stage shows, he lived much of his off-stage life avoiding the spotlight.
The last two decades were largely spent as a stay-at-home caregiver to his daughter, even picking her up after school in downtown New York. When he died, it had been more than ten years since his last interview.
He could have gone out in a grand slam, had the world on its knees in tears over his impending death. Instead, no one even knew he was dying. Bowie’s shining star held no place for gratuitous grief.
One of the flashiest of the rock’s icons went out in the quietest of ways. Perhaps he’d done it all, was known around the planet, sold more than 140 million albums, and was recognized virtually anywhere. He didn’t need one last grab for attention, one last attempt to appear relevant. Bowie simply is, was, and always will be relevant. He had nothing to prove. He’d done it all.
In fact, after suffering a heart attack in 2004, he said that was his last tour. And, unlike most other stars/bands who announce their final tour for the fifth time, it really was his last tour.
One never knew what to expect as Bowie’s next move. The same artist who appeared on stage in a dress also joined Bing Crosby in a Christmas television special and sang a duet of Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth.
His rock and roll lifestyle of the 1970s and 1980s was well-known. Like it had with Lou Reed, that lifestyle may have contributed to his early death.
But once he met and married Iman, he spent the last 24 years of his life deeply in love in a monogamous marriage.
I only met him once, five or six years ago (a man holding the hand of a little girl, his daughter) and did not realize I’d met him until after the fact. Inside a pet store in Greenwich Village, as I watched a cute puppy frolicking I commented out loud, “What a cute wee beastie.” I saw the fellow standing next to me nodding and he said, “That he is. The world needs more cute like that.” Then in a quieter tone: “But never get one from a pet store. Go to the pound.” To which the little girl with him agreed. “That’s right, the pound.”
The man’s voice was unmistakable. I looked at him and the little girl, smiled and nodded in agreement, while thinking, “that guy really looks and sounds like David Bowie.” Despite looking at him and sharing a smile, it wasn’t until we’d each left the pet store that I realized, Oh. My. Goth. That was David Bowie. Just out wandering the Village. No security entourage to bolster his sense of importance. No sense of self-importance whatsoever. Just a guy, a dad, a husband, checking out some cute puppies with his daughter. Oh, and, on the side, a music icon, one of the greatest of our time.
In many ways, despite all the musical transitions he’d been through, on the personal level not much had changed in 20 years. In 1996, Bowie told Newsweek magazine: “These days, my buzz can be obtained by just walking, preferably early in the morning, as I am a seriously early riser. I leave only if work demands it. I am not a secretive guy, but I am quite private. I live as a citizen pure and simple. I don’t go for the disguise thing — I’ve never found it necessary, at least not since my real hair colour grew in years ago. I suppose wearing jeans is the nearest I get to confounding expectations.”
This ultra-private man could have announced his diagnosis and travelled the world, fed his ego selling out 50,000 to 100,000-ticket stadiums night after night for month after month. Instead he went out quietly in the loving arms of a very few loved ones.
Bowie did not foster the sense of self-importance that’s so rampant in the entertainment industry. The artist lived and died with dignity.
Bowie’s artistic output has often involved issues of death.
So when it came time to leave this Earth, the grim reaper visited someone who had dealt with the metaphysics of life, death and dying throughout his career.
Some of those who’d inspired him had left shortly before his own departure.
Lou Reed had been gone a mere two months.
From “Five Years” and “Ziggy Stardust” to “Heroes,” “Ashes to Ashes,” or “Lazarus,” death hovered over many of his songs.
As Simon Riches and Andrew Watson wrote in David Bowie and Philosophy: Rebel Rebel, “Bowie was a unique performer. No other artist has ever written his own obituary in the form of an album release, just days before his death….Bowie’s illness was known to very few people. To the very end, Bowie embodied the unconventional and the contradictory.”
On January 10 of this year, I was about to travel to New York City when suddenly the world changed. I received the news that David Bowie had died. I had just purchased his newest CD, Blackstar, as well as ordered the vinyl release of the album. Two days later, the artistic genius who had created Blackstar was gone.
I listened to the lyrics and realized he’d told us the end was near. The ageless 69-year-old had left us. How was that even possible. He was the ultimate Pan.
My admiration for him grew (if that was possible) after his death. I already considered him in the same category as Tchaikovsky, Stokowski, and Philip Glass.
His music provides solace in times of pain and crisis. Think Heroes. It also provides an outlet for confused and unknown feelings. Think Rebel Rebel—an anthem if ever there was one. A simple riff based around D and E chords. His lyrics a catalyst for rage: Diamond Dogs.
His talents extended far beyond music. Unlike many rock stars aspiring to the world of theatre, Bowie was an actor first, as well as a fine sax player. The Rock & Roll world came later.
His final album could have attracted the crème de la crème of the world’s musicians, any of whom wanted to work with him. Again, not his style. Instead, he scoured jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. In 2014 he walked into 55 Bar, a small jazz club a few steps from the Stonewall Inn, liked the jazz quartet he heard and contacted them to be the backup band on Blackstar.
That album was a lengthy goodbye to his time spent on Earth. Like many of his works, the music is almost unclassifieable, except as his producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone magazine: “The goal, in many ways, was to avoid Rock & Roll.”
By the time most people heard the album, the lyrics were being sung from another world.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” is chilling to listen to from the man now in his grave.
The mesmerizing track “Lazarus” gave not so much a warning as a simple message of truth: “Look up here, man / I’m in danger.”
Visconti posted on Facebook and told Newsweek: “His death was no different from his life—a work of Art.”
David Bowie left behind a son, 44-year-old Duncan, a 15-year-old daughter, Lexi, and his wife of 24 years, supermodel Iman, who, on the day of David Bowie’s death tweeted, “The struggle is real, but so is God.” She also said, “Rise.”
She tweeted: “Life isn’t about avoiding the bruises. It’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it.”
Perhaps, after such a dismal year, it’s a time for rebirth. Or, as Iman noted: “Rise.”
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin