I remember it very, very well. I was 14, I was up way past my bedtime, and I was watching Conan O’Brien on the little TV in my bedroom with the sound turned down low, something I did frequently (i.e. all the time; sorry, Mom).
On that particular night’s show, the guest, David Bowie, sat next to the host, handsome, charming, nattily dressed, hair bright red and spiky, eyes lined in black. He played an acoustic version of “Dead Man Walking” off his album that was new at the time, “Earthling.” He was fascinating to both look at and listen to. I knew who he was already; he’d been in movies and had mainstream pop hits. But now, I had to know who he was.
David, like others before him and others after in my young life, threw teenage me a rope; a way to pull myself out of the dreary, lonely doldrums of life in rural Maine, and into something mysterious, beautiful, permissive, strange, fabulous. And I never looked back.
Through every change in my life, through every hair color and fashion choice, breakup and romance, new thing, old thing, broke, flush, drunk, sober, punk rock one day, all business the next, there he was, soundtracking it. I named my college radio show “Life on Mars,” after a song of his. My first dance at my wedding with my husband, Zach, was to “Rock n’ Roll With Me.” I have an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt tattoo on my right arm. I still have a tendency to dye my hair red, as an homage.
When I saw the news this morning, accompanied by a picture of Bowie, resplendent in full early 1970s Ziggy Stardust regalia, those piercing eyes always focused on something beyond what was happening in front of him, it felt like a member of my own family died. The icon, the rock star, the inscrutable and uncompromising artist, the actor who gave us Major Tom and the Thin White Duke and the Goblin King, who brought kabuki and Krautrock and mime into pop music, the singer who abandoned glam rock to put out a funk album and then put out two of the most stark, dark albums the world has known, the man who abandoned live performance and dealing with the media to be a father and a husband and a musician. He’s all those things, and he’s none of them.
Which is precisely why he matters, still matters, will likely always matter to those that love music and art and mystery, and value pushing boundaries both societal and personal. Just four days ago, he released “Blackstar,” a fierce, challenging, stunning addition to his already fierce, challenging, stunning discography. Four days ago, I listened to it and thought “He’s back at the top of his game.” Now, once I gather up the fortitude to listen to it again, I’ll hear it in a new light; as a swan song, a final artist’s statement, a loving goodbye. It’ll be a while before I can do that.
After all, nearly everything the man ever released into the world is uncategorizable. He’s often described as a chameleon; one that can change his colors depending on his surroundings. I never quite liked that, as that implies that Bowie changed to suit the times. I would prefer to think that Bowie changed and kept changing because that’s what Bowie does; he moves along on his own current, out of the mainstream, even as the mainstream finds that kind of brazen independence infuriating and intoxicating and tried (and failed) to rein him in. Even 1980s Bowie, the pop star, still did it his way.
I’ve heard everything the man has ever recorded; some of it I’ve listened to literally hundreds of times. After nearly 20 years of deep Bowie study, I still don’t understand everything. How can you? He is perfectly unknowable. Even a seemingly straightforward, joyful song like “Young Americans” can be read a few different ways; an outsider’s perspective on the U.S.A., an indictment of post-Nixon America, a love letter to post-Nixon America, a love song, a story, an unstoppable pop melody. Contrast that with “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing,” the oblique, decadent, inscrutable centerpiece of “Diamond Dogs,” or, 20 years later, his 1995 album “Outside,” a concept piece about art and murder, but written using an experimental, improvisational songwriting method. Or the gorgeous, wordless, devastating side B of “Low.” And there’s always “Modern Love.” I never wave bye-bye, but I try.
Perhaps, as we begin to process the loss of a great artist and, to many (to me) a mythic figure, we can take some comfort in the fact that literally until the end of his life he kept us guessing. It is fitting that there’s a song called “Lazarus” on “Blackstar;” he is the man who fell to earth, the man who sold the world, the man who rose from the dead. The man that never was one thing, ever, but somehow was all of it. That’s a gift; a beautiful, mysterious, fabulous gift.