Dear David Bowie,
It’s strange to miss someone I never knew. It’s strange to feel heartbroken over the loss of a singularly potent life source that is personally unknown to me. And then to see that loss mirrored on so many other faces, all sharing my grief, all also partaking in humanity’s collective sigh: that’s strange, too. It’s a peculiar kind of sadness, this feeling, one that comes from losing someone so integral to the state of our culture that we cannot help but shroud ourselves in the wistful speculation of what could have been.
What music and viscera did we miss out on because of the untimely death of Jimi? And Janis? And Jim, and Kurt, and Amy – all victims of the revered and prophetic 27 Club? And even John, who lived long enough to give us The Beatles and a handful of Yoko-infused songs – what could have been had he survived his forty-first year?
That feeling of "what if" is familiar to any that have felt the strident longing to have what they can no longer have, and it is compounded by the superhuman patina that undue death adds to legacy. These are our young heroes, frozen in a golden past, where they are immune to irrelevance, and impervious to the rust that steadily coats aging vocal cords and ingenuities.
And then there are those even rarer beings, those people whose wills seem to be interminable sources of energy. They are unsullied even by the harsh decay of time. They are people like you.
I was not there for the beginning, or even for much of the middle. Our relationship didn’t begin until the ‘90s, when I was a young boy just broaching the unfamiliar territory of art music. I stumbled upon your Singles Collection – a two-disc compilation of your 39 most popular songs (as of 1993) – at my local library, and I recognized your name because your holiday duet with Bing Crosby was one of my family’s favorite Christmas songs. I remember being surprised at such artistic breadth – though I doubt I thought of it in such terms then – and I spent several months trying to make sense of it all.
In that early exploration, I caught whiffs of the Talking Heads, and Brian Eno, and, in a particularly strange find, even Maynard James Keenan, the face of my then-irrepressible fascination with Tool. But I lost you before I could explore further. I followed Tool-centric canons, for many years, before transitioning wholly into indie rock. You were still there, lingering in the airwaves, sending the occasional “Starman” to remind me that there was more to be heard, but I paid little attention.
In college I fell in love with minimalism, and as I studied people like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and LaMonte Young, names like Eno and Bowie emerged once again – musicians that bridged the gap between art music and popular realms. I was fascinated to learn that the two worlds were so intimately connected. I discovered fondly that you and Eno had even made an entire trilogy of records together. My discovering ended there, though, and still I did not listen further. You remained a tall order for a rainy day.
In late 2014, soon after my music studies had ended, I witnessed your first career retrospective. It took place at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and it was fantastic. The vastness of its curation was a testament to your unprecedented output, and to your depthless energy, and for the first time I heard your songs in the context of larger, college-learned musical institutions.
It had seemed to me, until then, that music could either be accessible or it could be avant-
garde, never both at the same time. Somehow, though, you had found a distinct and perfect balance between the two. And it was always there, even as I walked through your chronology, watching as you morphed from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and beyond. Even as the music changed to reflect each new alter ego, I could still feel that same dauntless bravado, and that same enduring luminescence that is unique to you.
I was so inspired that, when I got home, I sat down at the piano and stayed there until a song showed up. I thought of you then, and for a few minutes I tried to channel the inimitable passion you maintained for an entire life. It even worked, and for a while it seemed nearly as though you were coming out of my hands and not me. It was then that I finally regarded the great tome that is your music catalog. It was immense, so vibrant and variegated that I didn’t know where to begin, so I didn’t.
This past summer, on a rainy night in Brooklyn, local artist Marco Benevento did a one-
off performance at The Knitting Factory, covering your Hunky Dory in its entirety. He carried an air of eccentricity that you would have appreciated, and he played clad in a bejeweled cape, which I think you would have appreciated, too.
Song after song was imaginatively rendered and flawlessly executed. Again, it was as though you were there, guiding the energy from Benevento’s hands into the rollicking crowd. The night was, quite simply, a celebration of your masterpiece and of the spirit that created it.
For the next several weeks, not a day went by that I didn’t listen through Hunky Dory. I found great pleasure in yelling the quirky stutter of “Changes,” and in calling my friends ‘kooks’ and ‘pretty things’. Eventually, I even moved on to your other albums. I listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, and then to Heroes, and then Aladdin Sane, and Space Oddity, and Scary Monsters. I could feel you roiling through character as the music roiled through genre, and it felt wonderful to have finally arrived. In retrospect, I’m very grateful that I did arrive then because it was just in time to partake, for the final time, in the anticipation sui generis that precedes a new David Bowie record.
You decided to release Blackstar on your birthday. Perhaps, for those days leading up to that date, you were holding your breath, hoping against hope that you would be there to see us receive your parting gift. And once it arrived, perhaps you breathed a sigh of joyful relief and let go, feeling satisfied with this as your final chapter.
For nearly 50 years your music stayed relevant and progressive, perpetually defining and redefining eras. You forever maintained the youthful zeal of a 27-year-old, and you did it so convincingly that, when you left this earth at age 69, we still find ourselves shrouded in the wistful speculation of what could have been.
Oh! you pretty thing, goodbye for now. I look forward to meeting you someday, somewhere out in the stardust, and until then, I’ll miss you.