In one of his books (I think it was The God Delusion), Richard Dawkins suggests that some human quirks stem from the fact that the bulk of our evolution happened in small, localised groups hunting across a relatively small area. This is how our brains evolved, and in order to process anything larger – say, 510 million square kilometres of land or seven billion people – we have to do some odd mental tricks to allow us to even vaguely comprehend the scale of the world around us. While Dawkins used this to illustrate another point, I feel that it’s probably the explanation for another phenomenon.
Specifically, it’s why thousands of people woke up this morning to find out that they’d lost someone they felt genuinely close to.
It’s an odd feeling. I’m well aware that I never met David Bowie, and that the man himself wasn’t even aware of my existence. We never shared anything meaningful or developed any kind of actual connection, but when I loaded up the news app on my phone this morning and read David Bowie dies at 69 my heart sank like I was reading about the death of a close friend.
David Bowie has been on my mind a lot recently. I was excited for the release of his 25th studio album, and for some reason his 1974 album Diamond Dogs had been striking a chord with me for weeks an I’d been listening to it non-stop. How could a man who seemed so alive only yesterday when I listened to Blackstar possibly have died?
The answer, simply, is that cancer is a shit.
I loved Bowie for his ability to make full, lush worlds filled with bizarre and vibrant characters in the space of a five minute song. I can’t think of another artist who could create a world as lush as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Diamond Dogs in just six minutes and then have the legacy of that world last over forty years.
It wasn’t just his worldbuilding and storytelling I loved, it was how safe and comfortable he made me feel with my sexuality. As a gay teenager, it felt like strong queer role models and idols were few and far between, but Bowie’s androgynous gender-bending and the public acceptance of his eccentricities felt like a caring hand on my shoulder and a reassurance that things would turn out fine.
There will always be a debate as to whether or not Bowie’s bisexuality was real, a curiousity, or just a fuck you of rebellion during the 70s that he later regretted. His interviews paint a conflicted and even contradictory account, but I’m not sure it even really matters. Bowie appealed to disillusioned gay and transgender kids and made them feel like things will be okay. That’s important. That’s really fucking important.
The public’s deep and unrequited connection to Bowie stems mostly from how much of himself he put into his albums. Even some of his most fantastic or bizarre characters and songs could be seen has having some metaphorical connection to aspects of David Bowie’s life story, and the opinion is quickly emerging that Blackstar was his goodbye, a knowing acknowledgement of his impending death and a characteristically cryptic and eccentric final message to the world.
Never has the interpretation of an album changed so drastically overnight as it has with Blackstar. It was an odd album to begin with, moody and discordant, seven tracks long and recycling two of those tracks from bonus tracks off his last album, The Next Day. But when viewed as the final chapter in Bowie’s musical autobiography, it’s immediately takes on a different, far more human meaning. It was one final metaphor, so deeply shrouded in the man’s typical mystery that it could only be unlocked once the artist himself had died.
I listened to it again today, and had to choke back tears as the final track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, played. I wonder if he wrote it as a symbol of the one final, essential piece of himself that would disappear upon his death. That spark that we’ll never see again.
I’ll always see David Bowie as proof that you can be whatever you want to be. It doesn’t matter if that’s rebellious, conforming, male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, homo-superior, Martian, or a one-legged post-apocalyptic hipster. If you don’t like your reality, you can change it. Even if it means changing everyone else’s perception of reality in the process.