Elegy for the Starman: Goodbye to Bowie

David Bowie, O'Keefe Center, Toronto, 1976. Copyright: Jean-Luc Ourlin. flickr.com/photos/jlacpo/7085740 - CC BY-SA 2.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ Edited.

David Bowie, O’Keefe Center, Toronto, 1976. Edited. Copyright: Jean-Luc Ourlin. flickr.com/photos/jlacpo/7085740 – CC BY-SA 2.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

On average, over 150,000 human beings die each day. But on January 10th, one of those people was David Bowie, and such was the creative brilliance of this artist, that we who loved his work may be forgiven for thinking that the world has noticeably dimmed with his singular passing.

He was a star. In the cosmic sense, not just a famous individual. He was an entity which emitted light, a navigational guide and inspiration to many, with an aura of the extraterrestrial, the superhuman. And like an extinguished star, his light will continue to reach us for eons after his death.

As so often happens these days, the news of this event reached me via social media. You read something, the brow furrows, the mind recoils. It can’t be – the dread of the past tense – the check for a hoax – the sad confirmation.

The ends of most celebrity lives do not, of course, touch me more deeply than would a news ticker reporting the death of any other unknown human being. There are a few exceptions. I felt personal sorrow over the passing of the actors Peter O’Toole and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I had immense respect for their work, liked to think of them alive in the world being creative, regretted the finality of death. But in their cases, it was the simple recognition that they would not make any more films which I might, from a distance, appreciate, combined with sadness for our universally mortal condition.

With David Bowie, it is something more.

This past fall, I had the privilege to experience Bob Dylan live in concert. It may well prove to be a one-time thing. I counted myself lucky to cross paths with this giant of songwriting while he is still making his troubadour way through the world. It was a tremendous chance to breathe in the air of rock history, to cement a huge part of 20th-century popular culture in the reality of my own largely 21st-century life.

I had hoped to have the same chance with David Bowie. His flurry of creative activity in the past few years, with the albums The Next Day and the poignantly-fresh Blackstar, had stoked the flames of that tentative hope. If he had announced another concert, whether in Berlin, Paris, London or even further afield, I would have done my utmost to be there. Now I know that it will never come to pass.

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Nonetheless, he bequeathed so many riches to us. His back catalogue is a vast cultural treasure hoard, which I have not even come close to exploring fully. Bowie’s fight with cancer, kept a closely guarded secret, was apparently known to legendary producer Tony Visconti, who shared a moving reflection on the artist’s intentions near the end. The timing of the Blackstar release, an eerie two days before his death, seems to have been no accident at all, but a meticulously planned final masterpiece, a last gift to humanity. Visconti summed it up perfectly – in death, as in life, Bowie was the consummate performance artist, a living, breathing, singing Gesamtkunstwerk.

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We will miss him. But he is still with us. Of all those who labor and strive to leave something behind, how many ever succeed in producing such a vast monument to existence, such an indelible handprint on the collective memory of billions? His influence is incalculable. At work today, I followed the example of pretty much the entire Internet and punched the keys as a bittersweet Bowie listening party flowed in the background. But even upon mixing it up with other artists, his words and imagery were everpresent. “Ground control to Major Tom,” sings the languid Lana Del Rey in “Terrence Loves You” – not to mention Peter Schilling’s hymn to the same Bowie character and the countless covers it inspired. Another lost legend, Kurt Cobain, on his stool in New York, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing of “The Man Who Sold The World.” Rock, pop, hip-hop, electro – it would be easier to list the genres and artists where Bowie’s example didn’t play a game-changing role.

Lady Gaga, U2, The Smiths, Madonna, Adam Lambert, Kanye, Placebo, Joy Division – Bowie’s brilliance fueled or impacted all of their careers. Nor were the vehicles of his influence limited to the musical realm. His diverse, quirky and unforgettable film appearances are cherished by generations of fans. Without Bowie’s iconic turn as Jareth the Goblin King in 1986’s “Labyrinth,” a young Bill Kaulitz might have missed the decisive spark of inspiration on his path to rockstardom as frontman of Tokio Hotel. Without the international presence of Tokio Hotel, I might have missed the crucial moment of interest and epiphany that lured me into learning the German language. No German Studies degree, no radio show for German music, no countless hours spent rocking out at gigs of German artists. No life and job in Berlin. An entirely different path. In this way, Bowie’s reach is infinite. His eyes may have closed, but his voice will continue to touch and shape lives into the distant future.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. This beautiful being is no more; no consciousness that is David Bowie is left to hear our grief and gratitude. But some gifts are too important to remain without spoken words of thanks. So I say: Thank you, David Bowie. Thank you for your work, your art, your life. The human world was and is better and brighter because you existed. I wish you could have had many more long years. Upon thinking of all you did with life and all you could have done with more time, some small voice in my mind can’t help sniffling, It’s not fair. But then I have to smile through the sadness, because there is your voice, answering.

Yes, life isn’t fair, and hurts like hell, as he once sang. But it’s wonderful and precious, all the more so because it’s always too short. David Bowie’s mind is inextricably intertwined now with the cultural DNA of humanity. As we move beyond the shock and sadness at his loss, let’s celebrate this peerless artist, who has gone the way of all true legends – fleeting in the flesh, but immortal in inspiration.

In closing, the words of another timeless Englishman, John Keats.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

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