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“Ain’t That Just Like Me?” Yes David Bowie It Is, Thank You!

Today I heard someone say, in reference to David Bowie’s death, that for him rock stars had been more like prophets than just entertainers. That people like John Lennon and David Bowie had more influence on his values and sense of tolerance than any religious leader ever had. Maybe this is why we seem to have such a strong reaction to their deaths. The music sites Spotify and ITunes have had an overwhelming request for all of David Bowies music and when I last looked his last video, Lazarus, had over 20 million views on YouTube (I’ve had to change this twice in the two days I have been writing this post from 17 to 20 million).
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David Bowie died this week, another person lost to the hideous disease that is cancer.

Just last week he turned 69, and in his last year of life he wrote and helped create a musical, released an album, a video and two days before his death he was doing a photo shoot. Maybe he was part alien after all! What he was for sure was a remarkable artist with a voice like an angel who I would like to put in my request now that if there is a heaven can I please be greeted by his singing as well as his one time collaborator Freddie Mercury. So I’m incredibly thankful for his music.

The remarkable thing is that for a career that lasted over 40 years he will be remembered for so much more than his music.

I have memories of David Bowie going back to 1975 when his song Fame was on the radio, a song I didn’t really like at the time but have since had the good sense to appreciate. And I have memories of his music spanning the rest of my life, how amazing when you think of how many one-hit wonders have also come through in those years. He wrote wonderful songs about feeling like an outsider, feeling alienated, songs for the disenfranchised.

The next thing I would like to thank David Bowie for is for starting the cultural conversation about androgeny and sexuality. In the beginning of his career his hair was long, he wore makeup and bodysuits. At later times he wore suits and had short hair. He challenged conventional thinking about gender, what was feminine, what was masculine. He also for a time spoke openly about sexuality, at one time saying he was gay, another time bisexual and yet another time a closeted heterosexual. He talked about experimenting in his youth and being attracted to gay culture. He was married to  women, the last one being his wife of twenty plus years. He seemed to defy black and white labels and being put into a category. These were all incredibly revolutionary things to be saying and doing when he started doing them. Lest we forget, homosexuality was outlawed at the time in England and even Freddie Mercury who died of AIDS never talked about being gay. Later in his life David seemed to not want to talk about his sexuality but who can blame him after years of having people speculate and try to label him this or that, but he certainly brought these issues to the forefront.

David Bowie was called a chameleon because of his remarkable ability to reinvent himself.

He did this with his stage personas and his fashion. He went from being very counter culture in the 70s to very mainstream in the 80s. I think this had to do with an amazing creative resilience. When he became bored with something or he wasn’t finding success in certain ways he would revamp and try something new. This versatility could be see in his collaboration with other artists which he did throughout his life, one of my personal favorites was his Christmas song with Bing Crosby (another singer I would like in my heavenly greeting please!) He collaborated with Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon and later in his career the band Nine Inch Nails and in the last year of his life jazz musicians. When his recording career was on the downside he moved to Germany and took up painting and writing songs that helped revive other people’s careers like Iggy Pop. He acted in movies and even on Broadway. He even did mime early in his life and not too many creative people can claim that.

This ability to be creatively resilient continued to the very end of his life. In the time after receiving a terminal diagnosis of liver cancer 18 months ago he was involved in writing and creating a musical based on his music of which he attended the premiere in December. He also wrote a beautifully haunting album called Blackstar which was released days before his death. He also released a video for the song Lazarus and it is said that he meant these things to be final gifts for his fans. And what gifts they are. First off he sounds amazing, his voice as clear and as full of emotion as ever. What he does with the album and videos is truly remarkable for more than this though. Here is a dying man writing and making art about his dying. This may have been his greatest contribution of all. How to be vital and creative until the end of life and to dare to talk about and show us through art his process of dying. We badly need help with that. Just like we so badly needed to be able to talk about gender variance and sexuality we need to be able to talk about and process death and dying.

In the video Lazarus we see him in bed struggling as though he is trying to break out of a cage, his eyes covered with a bandage with buttons for eyes.  He sings “just like that bluebird, oh I’ll be free”. Anyone who has sat by the bed of a loved one will recognize the imagery, the disturbing view of grief while someone tries to wrap their minds around the end of life. We also see him in another shot trying to write and be creative while the energy and life force just leave him. The video ends with him shuffling back and into a big wooden wardrobe  and shutting the door. It is horrible and depressing; honest and brave. We are used to pretty and superficial in our culture. We do not like to talk about death and dying, people will say things like “I don’t do hospitals” or  “I don’t do funerals”, doctors talk to dying patients about chemo treatments without explaining this won’t be a cure but may give you an extra month–if the side effects don’t kill you first, that is.

The problem with this lack of talking and accepting that we will all eventually die is that it leaves us and our loved ones woefully unprepared. We put things off until retirement, we make decisions about treatments and how to die in moments of crisis with our loved ones not knowing what we want. We may then have guilt or additional grief because we are not sure we chose well for the people we love, or we watch them suffer because palliative care was never offered or was offered too late. Few of us are ready to die but by avoiding the topic we deprive ourselves and our loved ones the chance to prepare and to make the transition in the best way possible.

David Bowie was brave enough to share his transition with us and in doing so he shared perhaps the most intimate thing a person can share.

It has touched me deeply and based on the reaction of people in the world I don’t think I’m alone. Dying was part of his journey as it will be for all of us. I hope to learn from his example how to be honest and brave and creative and productive as long as I can, even in dying. Beyond music and fashion and the cultural contributions he made, perhaps in sharing his dying with us he is again leading the way for us to a more enlightened way of being. And so when he asks in his song Lazarus “Ain’t that just like me?” I say, yes David Bowie.  It was just like you and thank you.

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One Comment on ““Ain’t That Just Like Me?” Yes David Bowie It Is, Thank You!

  1. Great summary of an iconic human being. I have been unable to stop listening to Blackstar—it is an incredible parting gift to all of us.

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