One of the trials of middle age in the 21st century is seeing more and more deaths of people who have been cultural icons for your entire life. I was one year old when “Space Oddity” was a hit. The video to “Ashes to Ashes” was one of my formative pop moments. No matter how good I think the current crop of pop and rock stars are (and a lot of them are), they can never compete with that; they haven’t had time to.
Given that mass popular culture has a finite and relatively recent history, the scale of this phenomenon feels relatively new. Our great-grandparents only had to deal with the deaths of kings and presidents and artists who were little more than names on a page or engraved reproductions. Not people who recorded dozens of albums that tracked their entire lives, and left behind countless hours of filmed interviews, videos and movie performances. Even bringing to mind images of the man is like flipping through shots of a crowd scene, and imagining that everyone in the crowd has just died.
I once gave a presentation at a conference about online identity where half the PowerPoint slides were wordless pictures of Bowie from different eras. Those are the pictures I used, above, with a photo of Blackstar Bowie to bring it up-to-date, because he was nothing if not up-to-date.
In my early twenties I shared a flat with a friend who was a Bowie obsessive, and she made me a fan too, where before I’d only known and liked the hits from Changesbowie. I know most of his albums now, and love a lot of them. I didn’t download Blackstar immediately on release, though, because it’s a busy couple of weeks at the start of semester and I knew it would be waiting for me when I was ready. Of course, I rectified that as soon as I heard the news, and listened to it this morning. It seems the perfect Bowie album to remember him by today, precisely because it’s new. No memory-laden, tear-filled listens to Hunky Dory or Heathen: instead, new, old, wise, ever-changing, Bowie.
Dear God, in one track he’s chanting “where the fuck did Monday go?”—the man was psychic.
Here’s Stephen Collins on David Bowie, drawn for his 69th birthday a few days ago.