By far the most profound and intensely moving aesthetic experiences to be had in recent months (and I’m one of the people who immensely enjoyed The Force Awakens! – fuck the J.J. haters) would definitely have to be David Bowie’s swan song, in the form of the video work accompanying the Blackstar album. Like a lot of people, I discovered these lovely bits of film artistry after the news of the massively influential singer’s death took over the internet, flooding newsfeeds with tributes and condolences. There’s something deeply astonishing about hearing a man sing “Something happened on the day he died” ON THE DAY HE DIED. Bowie’s parting works are a mediation on his own impending, inevitable and imminent mortality and the product of an übermensch level creative motivation. The guy sure as hell didn’t let cancer slow him down, and far from despairing at the finite duration of his existence, saw it as an opportunity to plumb the depths of his musical expressiveness. “Look up here I’m in heaven”, Bowie self-eulogizes in Lazarus, creating the chilling impression that we as an audience are receiving a message from beyond the grave. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” – an acknowledgement of the terrible vulnerability of the human condition, this from a man who kept the news of his terminal illness hidden from the public in order to buy himself a little extra space to compose one last time. By treating death with the same sense of flair and high style that typified his entire career, Bowie sets an example to us all: treat your life itself like a great and beautiful artwork.
Much can be said about the Starman’s recording oeuvre and performing work, and no small amount of ink and ASCII code has been devoted to criticism and interpretation of his output already. Just briefly I want to say that his impact on popular culture simply cannot be underestimated. Here is a musician who popularized androgyny well in advance of the mainstreaming of the LGBT milieu; kept up with the times, mining influences liberally from auteurs that he himself had inspired and collaborating with such illustrious names as Lou Reed, John Lennon, Mott the Hoople, Jim Henson, Bing Crosby, Mick Jagger, Trent Reznor, Arcade Fire and the Pet Shop Boys; who’s stylistic fingerprints can be found on such diverse genres as glam, New Wave, EDM, hip-hop (his albums are a goldmine of catchy samples), industrial, heavy metal, and …; who emergence as a cultural figure signaled shift toward a more introspective nihilism after the oft-naive hippie utopianism of late 60s rock music; who’s flamboyant theatricality (spacemen and aliens! deranged alter egos!) and self-reinvention was absolutely innovative.
Bowie’s tremendous impact on pop culture has been evident from the outpouring of affection that has been trending online and IRL since the announcement of his passing, including the prestigious honor a New Orleans jazz funeral. I myself was elated at my serendipitous discovery of a local tribute concert at Hoffman’s bakery with a revolving cast of musicians anchored by drummer Rick Walker. I had been wandering down the street when the sound of a few bars from the seminal Space Oddity pulled me into the restaurant/bar as if by a gravitational force. Once inside I was treated to a delightful and moving performance, the assembled audience singing along to the well-known choruses, a gorgeous glittery pixie girl (herself a fashion descendant of Bowie’s elan) dipped low to the ground sexily as she danced a sultry swagger, the singers gave testimony between songs to their indebtedness to Bowie’s legacy, and a lovely and talented lady friend of mine kissed me on the lips before the night was over (a first for me in 2016, which I interpreted as an optimistic omen for the new year, a welcome respite from the horrible time that I generally had in 2015). It felt for a moment like the whole world was mourning.
In the wake of his death, I have delved into the discography, realizing that I had taken this prolific soul for granted (as a child of the 1980s, he was someone who was just sort of always there) and had never bothered to actually listen to all of his music. For those of you who are not already intimately familiar with his recording history, I suggest you take the plunge as well, there’s plenty of lesser-known gems to be uncovered.
One last tidbit, I found it interesting to discover that Bowie grew up in a family marked the insecurity of mental illness, an experience which I feel an affinity for given my own late father’s history of mental breakdown. In this interview with Charlie Rose, he states that “Being an artist in an way, of any nature … is a kind of a sign of a … social dysfunctionalism. It’s an extraordinary thing to want to do, to express yourself in such rarefied terms. I think it’s a looney kind of thing to want to do.” The artistic impulse may very well be intimately related to the psychology of a damaged psyche. The person who knows first hand the horrifying agonies of suffering is incentivized in the course of his own unfolding self-actualization to make beauty from monstrosity and to respond to repugnance by inciting joy. A traumatic life offers tremendous insight, as is evident in the cleverness, philosophical wonder and maturity of his lyrical ingenuity and thematic vision.