I never really thought that I would write “David Bowie is dead.” It’s not that I thought I might predecease my idol, who was exactly my age now when I was born; it’s that I half-figured he wouldn’t die so much as be assumed directly into outer space with an ambiguous epitaph like Aladdin Sane’s: “1947 – 2016 – 20?”
The video for “Lazarus,” released on January 7 — only three days before Bowie's death — is clearly intended as a farewell. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” he sings, after emerging from a closet. In it, Bowie sits in a hospital bed, his eyes bandaged, his body levitating like a ghost (or a doomed astronaut in zero-g). He vogues in a mirror, cheering himself up as sick people sometimes do, pretending their cancer-stricken bodies are full of vitality: “Oh, I’ll be a freak/Ain’t that just like me?”
What a freak. What a complete and total freak.
David Bowie kept his ‘lectric eye on Mars and put his ray gun to the censorious prudes at the BBC and pressed his space-face close to Bing Crosby’s. He was the Goblin King, he was Pontius Pilate, he was Nikola Tesla, he was an FBI Agent who disappeared (twice) into the Black Lodge, he was the judge of the Zoolander-Hansel walk-off. He was the mama-papa who fell to earth and went to Berlin before anybody else was doing that. He was the Tilda Swinton lookalike with the malevolent smile and the permanently dilated pupil that made his eyes look like they were different colors. (They weren’t.) And he could sing: Baritones have natural falsettos, but apart from technical expertise and ability to mimic soul and the New Romantics, the Bowie of “Boys Keep Swinging” and the Bowie of “Suffragette City” are completely different. His vocals could keep up with any physical transformation, even to the croak on his last two records.
A man who re-enacts his own alter ego’s suicide again and again is a man who routinely peers into the void, and Bowie battled a few addictions over the years. Let’s say, hypothetically, he had joined the 27 Club like Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain (who was obviously a fan, famously covering “The Man Who Sold the World”). He would still have put out eight full-length records, including Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs. He would have released “Rebel Rebel” and “Big Brother” and “The Prettiest Star” and “Drive-In Saturday” and “Panic in Detroit” and “Changes” and “Queen Bitch,” with “Young Americans” (released when he was 28) probably knocking around in his noggin.
It’s always struck me that this icon to 50 million misfits and weirdoes was, at bottom, a heterosexual male. I won’t presume to police sexual categories, but Bowie always seemed more interested in and identified with the aesthetic possibilities of pansexuality and androgyny than in actually smooching dudes. Maybe he had a genuinely erotic encounter with Mick Jagger, or maybe they just got off on the idea of the tabloids catching two rock stars in bed; it doesn’t matter. David Bowie was exploding categories we take for granted today before they’d even coalesced. He knew gender is performance and did it better than anybody.
And now he’s gone and there’s nothing we can do about it. It would be nice to think that he will come back to warn all the nobody people about impending catastrophe, or even to believe he would never wave bye-bye. But all we can do is sigh when they ask if you knew his name and play the wild mutation as a rock-'n'-roll star — because it's cathartic to be a hero, just for one day.
If David Bowie was transformative on your miserable adolescence, make him know you really care. Make him jump into the air.