This is going to be difficult to write.
I’m not even sure what order to do it in. Do I start with how I found out that he died? Do I begin with my discovery of his music at age 15? Do I list how many of his songs fill my iTunes?
What I really want to begin with is shock.
I’m shocked that he’s gone so soon.
I’m shocked that I’m in a state of grief as though he was a member of my family.
I’m shocked that my love of his music has yet to waver from its first blush of youthful obsession. I thought maybe it had, but yesterday proved me wrong. Horribly wrong.
Let’s take it chronologically. That will be easiest.
I don’t know when my parents bought Bowie’s double disc of “The Singles 1969 – 1993.” When I hit my teenage years, I started pulling CDs out of their collection to try out on my new stereo. The fact that this was a double disc was exciting (two for one!) and the cover intriguing (Andy Warhol-esque colored image of Bowie singing into a microphone). I think my parents had recently been listening to the first disc and I wanted to hear to “Space Oddity” again.
(I find it mildly poetic that “Space Oddity” was the first song of Bowie’s that I loved because it was his first number one hit. It truly wasn’t often that the hit songs drew me to artists. The Doors’ song that obsessed me was “The End”; with The Beatles it was the George Harrison-driven material “Within You / Without You” and “The Inner Light”; my favorite Led Zeppelin songs were “When the Levee Breaks” and “Going to California”. Not that those songs weren’t popular, but they certainly weren’t the signature songs of those bands by any means.)
What was it about Space Oddity? Number one, it’s a story. I was a budding writer and already searching out stories in every aspect of my life. Number two, it’s a tragic story. It only took one serious listen for me to be completely obsessed with the echoing, “Can you hear me, Major Tom…?” I love poetic tragedies and Bowie nailed this one. It was the kind of story I wish I’d written.
Anyway, I let the CD play on. It wasn’t long before my new favorite songs were “Changes” and “Oh, You Pretty Things” – listened to back to back, of course. Sometimes I still have trouble differentiating the first ten seconds of these songs. And I still feel really weird if I hear the end of “Changes” and it isn’t immediately followed by a bit of piano and the words “Wake up your sleepy head, put on some clothes, shake off your bed…”
But “Life On Mars?” quickly took over my life. Again, the tragedy of it drew me in like a moth to flame. Being the dorky new girl at my high school, it was not that difficult to feel like Bowie was talking about me when he called to “the girl with the mousy hair.” Every lyric felt like a condemnation of the society I knew and also disliked. This was the year of post 9-11 George W. Bush and fanatical Americana and Let’s Invade Iraq Because Of Made Up Reasons.
If it isn’t already evident, I fell in love with David Bowie’s lyrics. The man was speaking to my teenage soul. I wanted to be his “mellow-thighed chick” in Suffragette City. My school day was insane! I was a total blam blam! Soon I was dancing around my room at midnight to the strains of “Rebel Rebel” and doodling the lyrics to “Ziggy Stardust” in all of my notebooks.
(Speaking of “Rebel Rebel,” if you hear the first chord of that song and don’t immediately crank your volume, I’m not sure we can be friends.)
He made me feel like someone I didn’t know I wanted to be. He made me feel like more of myself as I was. Everything about his music spoke to me. Even the stuff I didn’t understand, I knew someday I wanted to.
I wasn’t alone in my newfound obsession for long.
I sat down on the floor of my living room in New York with the lyric booklet of this CD and wrote a letter to my best friend in Virginia. I waxed euphoric about my discovery and copied a bunch of lyrics and burned her the CDs for her very own. Soon we were doing what teenage girls do, trading gorgeous pictures we’d found of Bowie on the internet, detailing how he made us feel, sending each other favorite lyrics in the middle of all the other crazy details of our lives.
My dad and my brother both jumped in and out of my obsession with me. I began buying Bowie albums at Tower Records; EMI/Virgin records had recently released remastered copies of his discography and I wanted them all. My dad bought the anniversary edition of Aladdin Sane with its many live concert tracks. My brother and I rented Velvet Goldmine together (a Todd Haynes movie loosely based on Bowie’s glam rock career) and Alex painted his fingernails black. But he got into Bowie’s Berlin years before I did and drifted off into Lou Reed territory.
Meanwhile, I acquired a dozen of his records. I bought magazines about his career. I pored over my Rolling Stones for pictures of him and Iman and taped them to my walls. (Their Tommy Hilfiger campaign featured prominently near my closet.) I clipped the classic snapshot of the Unholy Trinity of Glam Rock (Bowie, Reed, and Iggy Pop) and stuck it in my wallet. I covered my school notebooks in pictures I’d printed from the internet; David Bowie on a pedestal, David Bowie smirking, David Bowie as Halloween Jack, as the Thin White Duke, as an immensely 80s popstar with an oversized suit and yellow hair. I obtained the classic Ziggy Stardust concert and watched his cover of “My Death” until I cried. I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth and Basquiat. I quoted “I’m Afraid of Americans” to my classmates with glee. I didn’t understand 1. Outside as a whole, but I watched the music video for “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” until I had his every expression memorized. I tried to take apart Heathen and Reality when they were released. My mom got me posters of the gorgeous anime-like cover of Reality and let me scrawl lyrics around them to form my own unique art piece. I would’ve died of jealousy when Sara got to see him in concert during the Reality tour if she hadn’t written down every word of the night she’d experienced and copied the whole set list for me so that I felt like I was there.
When I went to college, one of the first things I told people was how much I loved David Bowie. He was basically a part of my identity at that point. If people knew anything about me, I wanted them to know I was a writer, a biology major, a military brat, and that I loved David Bowie more than anything else.
(I think they got the message.)
All of this, and I haven’t mentioned why. Why was it David Bowie? Why wasn’t I obsessed with someone else, or something else?
I’m still not sure.
Of course, there are all of the reasons that everyone else will mention. David Bowie truly was a genius at reinventing himself. He always seemed a step ahead of the music industry. He seemed to make music because he needed to, not necessarily for the paycheck or the fame (although he definitely indulged in both).
He was a cooler Bob Dylan wearing a dress. He made androgyny, homosexuality, and bisexuality not just acceptable but amazing as a glam rock god. He reinvented the world of 1984. He wrote apocalyptic fantasies before young adult fiction even existed. His cocaine, milk, and red pepper fueled Station to Station is still my favorite thing created by any artist ever. His Berlin years with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno are like music reimagined. He did the 80s pop star thing better than anyone else. He collaborated with and fostered other artists and reemerged in the 90s with more genres under his belt than any other artist I can think of.
When the Reality tour ended and no news of another album surfaced, I worried (along with everyone else) that he was done for good. But of course the surprise of The Next Day with all its triumphant nostalgia was perfectly Bowie. And then Lazarus and Blackstar…
And now we know what that was about. Again. Perfectly Bowie. It’s hard not to think that he orchestrated his career this way on purpose. That he chose his own path every time, and he ended it exactly how he wanted it to end.
Is it the story of David Bowie that obsesses me? He strove for fame, achieved it, and then steered his own course as he wished for the rest of his career. He had two marriages that formed perfect romantic dramas, one a bit crazy and one incredibly serious. He kept his private life private. By all accounts he was funny and intelligent and kind. Margaret Cho met him once and told us all that he “smelled like violets.”
As a writer, I think this is part of what I love about him. He did after all inspire me to my ultimate life’s goal: to write a book in every genre that I can manage.
As a person though… I think I love David Bowie because he speaks to me. Something about his lyrics, his voice. They resonate. There is a space in my soul that he filled with something that understands. I always felt like he understood love. He understood art. He understood life. And he knew how to tell us about it.
I feel like I knew David Bowie even though I never attended one of his concerts, I never met him in person, and I was never anywhere near occupying the same physical space as him.
I was having a bad night. (Depression will do that sometimes.) I couldn’t sleep. I was feeling anxious and crazy and my thoughts kept whirling around in the way they do when I can’t turn anything off. I was trying hard to listen to zen videos and just go the hell to sleep so I could try to go to work when my BBC app sent me an alert.
I rolled over thinking that it was probably going to be something else happening in the Middle East or maybe some British political thing that I didn’t really care about. Instead:
Music legend David Bowie has died, his son says.
It was 2:06 in the morning.
I sat bolt upright, clutching my phone, staring at the word. I thought to myself, no way, there’s no way, this has got to be a mistake. I went to my other news apps and saw nothing and thought, okay, this is a mistake. I checked the news on Safari… And then everyone else caught the story too. I went to Twitter and there was Duncan’s tweet.
Very sorry and sad to say it’s true.
Immediate tears. I scrolled through the news stories and sobbed. I don’t think I was even registering anything; I was just crying and feeling numb. Wondering why it was happening.
Here’s the thing. I knew he was going to die someday. He’d had health problems before. I’d imagined it before. But. I just thought… I really thought it was going to be years away. Decades even. He’d just released Blackstar, for Christ’s sake. It didn’t seem fair or right.
So I put on Blackstar. (Of course, I’d preordered it back in early December and had already listened to the title tracks dozens of times.) This time I listened to the lyrics more closely.
Yeah. He knew. This was his way of saying goodbye.
I’m just… not ready to say goodbye. I’m not ready for there to never be new music. I’m not ready to realize that I will never get the chance to see him perform. I’m not ready to feel this kind of grief.
At first, I just felt shock. Disbelief. And it morphed into a kind of numb pain that just sat in my chest and reached up to make me cry every hour or so. I honestly spent most of the day in a sort of fugue state, crying, staring, trying to distract myself and failing. I’d listen to his music until I couldn’t stand it. I’d reblog pictures and tributes on Tumblr until I had to look away.
I wasn’t sure I deserved to be feeling this kind of grief until my friends started contacting me on Monday. They sent me texts and posts telling me how sorry they were. How they appreciated me introducing them to him. To let me know if there was anything they could do for me.
And it began to strike me just how very much my love for David Bowie and his art has become a part of who I am. Sara and I agreed; this is so much more than a beloved celebrity dying, this is more like losing a family member.
A part of me is feeling so destroyed by his death that I’m not sure how to move forward. Another part is telling me how grateful I should be that I will always have everything about him that is most important to me.
His music will always be a part of my life. That’s not something that can be taken away. Even if he doesn’t walk this earth, his music exists. His music, that speaks to my soul and makes me feel like I’m more than I knew I could be.
He makes me feel like someone I didn’t know I wanted to be. He makes me feel like more of myself than I am now.
So thank you, David. Thank you for being here while I am. Thank you for coming into my life when you did, and thank you for continuing to do what you did best for your entire existence.
I honestly don’t know who I’d be without you.
All of my love forever,