Aside from my Facebook page I didn’t really join in that publicly with the collective global grief expressed yesterday at the news of Bowie’s passing. This was largely because I couldn’t think of any tribute that didn’t sound in some way trite. The man was just too big. I can’t think of any cultural correlatives other than Elvis and John Lennon, and I hadn’t therefore really felt what I was feeling yesterday, I realized last night, since 1980 when news broke of John Lennon’s murder. A friend of mine expressed the feeling very well on Facebook in the morning: ‘F**king hell. Even though I wasn’t his greatest fan it’s not right that he’s no longer in the world. He’s always been around. David Bowie shouldn’t be dead, for f**k’s sake.’
I’ve lost a lot of heroes since John Lennon – Ian Curtis, Lux Interior, Syd Barrett, Iain Banks, half the original cast of Star Trek – but however many fans were heart-broken, and whatever the impact, it wasn’t the same as yesterday. And like many of the people grieving, I wouldn’t even count myself as a hardcore Bowie fan, inasmuch as I wasn’t religiously following every new album after the ones that inspired me as a kid. Like the majority of the post-punk X-ers, it is the images of the Ziggy Stardust era that immediately leap into my head at the mention of his name, while I think the last new album I bought was Scary Monsters. But that’s not important. My major, probably life-changing engagement with Bowie was appropriate to my age and generation – an introduction to avant-garde art, a prelude to punk and a clarion call to the out-of-step and the sexually confused. But this was just a single phase in his consistently innovative existence. It makes you think about true genius, doesn’t it? Admit it, when you try to think of an artist – especially one whose chosen medium is rock and roll – that has gone the distance, consistently developing and expanding their art, rather than falling into self-parody and pastiche, tell me that you don’t immediately think of David Bowie.
It would be pointless trying to list and analysis the sources and inspiration behind the body of work Bowie has left us. To give just one personal example, one the records I remember buying as a youth – which I still have – was Bowie’s Baal EP, which was my introduction to Bertolt Brecht, Modernism and Phenomenology. And as I write, tearing up as if I’ve just lost an old friend, I can hear my wife listening to Blackstar in her studio, that remarkable farewell, that somehow draws in Expressionism, European and Asian theatre and god knows what else: still challenging, eclectic, and hauntingly beautiful. People are calling it ‘Jazz,’ but like Bowie, Blackstar defies simple taxonomy. I’m getting Scott Walker, Restoration Tragedy, the Gothic… an existential hymn to the imminent end of individual being. And despite reportedly suffering five heart attacks he made sure he finished it. And then he left the building. It reminded me of a saying I learned when I lived in Japan – which he will have known as well: ‘Death can be beautiful, dying is not.’ Bowie came to terms with his own death through his art, and then made it art. And in the last photograph of him, taken on his birthday last week, he was still smiling. I hope I’ll be as brave when I’m facing my own demise, but in my heart of hearts I very much doubt it.
Yesterday the world united in grief and celebration; everyone, pretty much, at that moment, was a Bowie fan. And there’s a reason for this, that goes beyond music and celebrity and trends. It was because we all knew, consciously or instinctively, that someone truly great had passed, not just a musical icon, but a historical one. As human culture, god willing, progresses, Bowie’s name will ring out like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Picasso… you know, the transcendent geniuses, the ones next to whom the brilliance of the best of the rest seems suddenly garden variety. (And I’m speaking as an academic historian here, not some frowsy old Floribel.) He went beyond Elvis, probably even beyond Lennon in the scope of both his vision and his influence, a genius so profound that you could almost believe that maybe, just maybe, the old devil really was from another planet.
Amid the millions of tributes yesterday, I thought Simon Pegg put it particularly well on Twitter: ‘If you’re sad today, remember that the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.’ It’s not often the entire world stops to mourn a single human being; this is, in itself, the ultimate tribute, and one that is in every sense justified. Bowie was that great, from start to finish. So let’s celebrate his life and work, count our blessings for getting to experience it, and keep dancing until the end. We’ll not see the like again.