David Bowie passed away on Sunday January 10. He was only 69. Fuck cancer, seriously. It's a long shadow that hovers over us all, constantly encroaching into our lives, taking people from us that we'll never have another drink with or talk to about our day again, or people we don't actually know like Bowie, but whose music impacted our lives. I just want to set down a few words about a musician I loved, whose music has soundtracked so much of my life.
When I heard the news--Elizabeth saw it online after we got up and before we went into the get the kids up and ready for the day--I was gobsmacked. She told me while we were feeding the babies and I just couldn't come up with the words. I just kept repeating "Wow" and "Damn." It wasn't sinking in. Once we were eating our breakfast later, I found a performance of "Five Years" online and played that in tribute to the man, the myth, the legend. When I started thinking about Bowie songs, I rattled off several of them in my head before "Five Years" cropped up and I thought oh yes, I have to play that one now. For some reason that song has always been a personal favorite of mine, a song that moves me every time I hear it. Wikipedia has a quote from Allmusic calling it "easily one of the greatest album-opening songs of all time." That's absolutely true. It begins Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in dramatic fashion, and then it's just one killer song after another on that album. "Five Years" tells the tale of earth's impending doom in five years' time, and then the aftermath of people living with the knowledge that their time is running out. It's haunting, and it's science-fiction, space-age trappings only enhance the effect the song has on me. It feels like a fully realized world in this one song. At one point he sings, with weariness, "My brain hurts a lot." I've conjured that line in my head so many times over the years, usually when I'm in situations that feel overwhelming, and I simply can't process anything more. All the best songs wedge themselves into our brains for a lifetime, and this one's easily one of the best Bowie ever recorded, which is really saying something.
Bowie's connection to two of my other favorite artists, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, also cemented his flawless credentials in my mind. Bowie played a big role in helping to resurrect the careers of both men in the early 1970s when both were fairly down and out and the prospects of successful music careers were not strong for the two proto-punk pioneers. They made some fantastic records together, including Reed's solo breakthrough Transformer and Pop's 1973 "heavy liquid" masterpiece with the Stooges, Raw Power, plus some records with Pop that the duo recorded in Berlin later that decade. And working with those guys, who were heroes of Bowie's, had a major impact on his music during that time and immediately after. Sometimes I'm in absolute awe at the mastery of these guys during the '70s, a decade when Bowie released one smash hit classic record after another, all the while growing and changing as an artist.
You can read lengthy obits for the man elsewhere--this one's particularly good--and they'll just keep streaming in over the course of this week and beyond. I'm just here to acknowledge, through words, how important David Bowie's music was to me, to my wife, to my friends, and to so many people. Through his constantly shifting public images--from Ziggy to the Thin White Duke to the Man Who Fell to Earth and everything in between and beyond--he created a body of work that seems mammoth now. And that's because it is. It spans six decades and covers a wealth of musical genres, as Bowie was above all a music lover, and he poured his heart and (plastic) soul into everything he recorded or performed. I think it's hard to process the death of someone like this specifically because they always seemed larger than life to us, to the point where we couldn't really imagine life without them. Obviously it's different than when someone you know passes, especially a friend or family member. Those are devastating losses to deal with. This is easier to ignore, to move past quickly and get on with the rigors of the day. But feeling this sort of world-as-community loss is still a valid response to the death of someone whose music touched so many of our lives. At least we still have the music, and we can play it from now until the end of the world.