What is it about the death of a rock star like David Bowie that affects us so deeply?
Turns out I’m not the only one surprised at both the intensity and the persistence of my grief over David Bowie’s death. For many of us, this is unlike any other loss of someone we do not know but love. His cultural impact is, at this writing, the most “think pieced” subject in internet history. But more touching is the outpouring of feeling from fans, the fitful attempts to express and explain this expansive sense of bereavement for someone we never spoke to.
By now, a contingent of non-fans is losing patience with muddle-headed grumpiness, despair, and sad-sackery – all quite inconvenient when life calls. Such blindsiding woe irritates them, in part because, I imagine, they feel excluded. So they sulk. (Ironic, that.) Or they accentuate his flaws, lapses in taste (he did have them), and out-and-out mistakes.
But guess what? We don’t care if you’re irritated, darling. Because we reckon Bowie wouldn’t care, either. And, you know: WWBD? In fact, in his art, he often thrived on making folks uncomfortable, because he knew that process was both good for them and good for him. He gave us a map so we could do it ourselves, if we so desired. And the “X” on that map? That’s the better version of us.
Here’s the thing: we’re not just mourning the man’s art. We’re feeling untethered to a life source that brought out the best in us, and we fear we’ve lost access to that part of our natures. We fear the music will not be enough. We fear his death distances us from what he inspired: adventurousness, humor, bravery, divine mischief. We are lessened in his absence, or so our hearts tell us.
For some, this disconnection will indeed happen, for others it won’t. Grief is unpredictable. If you’re lucky to get old, you know grief is the tax on a long life. It can diminish, or it can embolden. (Sometimes, over an arc of time, it can do both.) Even more than love or lust, it is the trickster emotion. You can’t know which way it’ll go, especially if, like Bowie Grief, it’s a brand you’ve not felt before. This communal sadness of Bowie fans is all of us standing together in a dust cloud – a stardust cloud! –waiting and worrying, feeling small, none of us certain where and who we’ll be when it all settles.
I’ve tasted some sweetness in this. A few friends have reached out to me, unbidden. Bless them. “I thought of you,” they say. “I know what David Bowie means to you. I’m so sorry.” We don’t need to talk about it, and that particular sense of kinship radiates in the dark, offers strength.
Sometimes, though, we do talk about it. We read. We write, share video, encourage, and offer support and love, all by any means necessary. We sing. We bludgeon our ears with the wealth and dazzling variety of song our man left behind. We avail ourselves of opportunities to reach across time and distance and be messy. We misbehave.
Via social media, I’ve enjoyed the many recollections from people who crossed paths with Bowie, either in work, on the streets of New York, or just in the day-to-day here in my Hudson Valley home, where David and Iman have a house, and where their daughter once attended summer camp with my son. (I never had a Bowie Encounter, but my wife stood agog as he ordered coffee from the Cub Market in Bearsville. She’d last seen him playing piano for Iggy Pop in the 70s. She did not approach, but came home full of crackling energy.)
Because of the circles I run in, I’ve read a lot of friends’ – and “friends’” – recollections of youthful encounters with Bowie songs, when the tunes were new and Bowie was outrageous and scary to the status quo, punk before that term had been codified. As we all know, his personas became talismanic for various outsiders (including those who would become punk pioneers). They drew strength from Bowie’s oblique-yet-powerful narratives of oddballs flouting convention and thereby experiencing the choicer thrills of existence. Sticking it to the man led to the garden of earthly – or celestial – delights.
The inherent promise was that we could be outré and be OK, too, and touching that forbidden place would open doors, would embolden. More often than not, these promises panned out. And for the fans who did not and do not identify as “outsiders,” his pop art spoke to their clandestine renegade impulses; he was their secret sharer. Bowie fans, regardless of how they presented themselves, felt seen, loved, and fortified for the times they would be invisible, undervalued, held in contempt, or betrayed. And those things happen to all, not just misfits.
He was there for us, but it wasn’t through reinforcing a sense of victimhood. With his wonky eye, bad teeth (until the 80s), occasionally cadaverous pallor, and, especially early on, touching uncertainty in his voice (he has averred he is “not a great singer”), he played up his imperfections, appealing to one’s own sense of brokenness, making it cool.
And the whole package was such a turn on. But while it was dead sexy, it wasn’t just about sex. Bowie turned us on beyond carnality, touching places beyond gender, a landscape our culture is only just now claiming en masse. All of the talk of whether or not he was bisexual, or pansexual, or whatever, and what a drag it was he recanted his once-admitted bisexuality, then recanted his recanting, and did he canoodle with Mick Jagger, et cetera, is all so tedious. Those types of questions are, I imagine, among the reasons he stopped talking to the press. At the end of the day – and it is the end of the day – it feels obnoxious to exert energy in a struggle to codify that aspect of his art. Shut up and dance. Shut up and kiss me.
As ever, the fans – as opposed to the scribes and commentators – know, even if they do not possess the chops to express as much. They know – I know – Bowie gave us a place where souls can touch, sexually and/or otherwise, and even though his flesh is cremated, the places he created through sound and vision remain, landscapes to share as long as we have our senses, our own blessed bodies, and the bravery he bestowed upon us.
Will we ever get over our Bowie Bereavement? Will we wake to a day in which his music or an image of his face, or the sound of his voice, doesn’t evoke sadness, nostalgia, or echoes of the pounding, encompassing grief we now feel? My guess is no. But I think that’s the good news.