I came back from my run around 6 o’clock. Racheal was getting out of bed for her run. We were both exhausted and couldn’t shake off the burdensome blanket of early morning lethargy.
Rach said on her way out, “By the way, David Bowie died.”
I really couldn’t say much but, “Wow.”
A pit formed in my stomach and I carried it through the whole day. This might seem silly to a lot of people—I completely acknowledge that. I’m not a Bowie expert. I’m just a fan. But I wanted to talk about why I felt the way I did.
The March To The Void
When I was 15-ish, somewhere between acne, driver’s permits, and clumsy conversation, I first discovered David Bowie’s music. At the time, I would have argued that Jimmy Eat World was the best band in existence. No judgment, please. My sister gave me Bleed American for my birthday and I was in love. This was before they re-released the album as self-titled and changed the opening song to “Salt/Sweat/Sugar” because post-9/11 patriotism was at a fever pitch. That album became the anthem for my early teenage years and Jimmy could do no wrong.
At the time iTunes was gaining a lot of momentum and artists were curating playlists. Jimmy Eat World popped up one day and I listened through everything on there. That’s when I discovered “Space Oddity.”
There is a deep sadness that hangs around the edges of that song like cobwebs in forgotten corners. We might be celebrating the heroism of Major Tom at the beginning of the song, but something is very unsettling. Our hero transitions from accomplishment, to awe, to insignificance, and then to death.
This song means a lot of things to many people and the best symbols can be interpreted in many layers. “Space Oddity” is no exception. Most recently, I saw an interpretation in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Kirsten Wiig’s character says to Walter Mitty about “Space Oddity” that it’s a song “about courage and going into the unknown.”
For me, this song has always been one of the most elegant portrayal of man’s journey through life and to the grave. The blind confidence of living forever and having all things that one needs to make the trip. Going out into the unknown and experiencing beauty, strangeness, and the world for the first time. Feeling the gradual realization of your own insignificance. Bidding your loved ones farewell. Finding yourself alone in space and silence.
Pretty deep for a 15-year-old you might think, but it’s not. I’ve always been obsessed with death. Tim Burton was one of my idols at the time so naturally everything was about death. I was basically playing I Spy for any parallel with death I could find.
“Space Oddity” ended up on nearly every mix/playlist I made and it was sung in my car constantly. The impact was made.
Finding Ziggy Stardust
In college, one of my roommates had nearly every single David Bowie album. I hadn’t really gone much beyond”Space Oddity” in high school so this was a great opportunity. I listened through hours and hours of it. Naturally, I found my way to all of his singles and greatest hits like “Fame,” “Changes,” “Let’s Dance,” “Life on Mars,”and “Heroes.”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars stood out from the rest of the albums and ended up being played on repeat throughout college and even now. A rock opera about an alien trying to warn mankind of the end of the world? What is better than that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
What was the most amazing thing about listening to all of David Bowie’s music was it’s sprawling, bizarre and genre-bending qualities. I’ve read of him being called a chameleon —adapting to every new trend in music and in that act, redefining it. He’d write pop hooks, but keep impenetrable lyrics and dissonant chords.
I’m not knowledgeable in music theory or anything to write intelligently about his musical legacy. I’ll leave that to the experts. But I’m focusing on what his music meant to me.
David Bowie’s music and legacy defied all categories. Musically, he refused to belong to only one genre, but as a true artist, experimented with every new thing. He was a defender of the persecuted, the different, the strange, the hated, and the underdog. He challenged the way we think about categories that we assume are set in stone. Regardless of whether I agree with everything he advocated is beside the point. He made me grapple with the perspectives I grew up with.
I was raised in a currently conservative religion while living in a liberal state. I tend to lean more left in my political views, but still have a deep and abiding faith. Because of this, it’s always been hard to feel socially comfortable. Too conservative for my liberal friends. Too liberal for my conservative friends. Too religious for my non-religious friends. Too unorthodox for my religious friends. My artwork has always been seen as dark, morbid, bizarre, and strange. My musical taste all over the board and not always discerning.
This isn’t a pity party though, I love that part of myself.
Plus, I’m not alone. One of my favorite memories was when I was in Bellevue driving around with our Bishop on a service project. In his van, a Bowie song came on the radio and I said something about how I loved David Bowie. He stopped. Then he said, “Really?! Me too! I’ve got his full discography on here.” We spent the next couple hours jamming out to Bowie.
Bowie’s music was a celebration of that to me. Defying labels and celebrating strangeness, uniqueness, and exuding a confidence in the self. He redefined himself again and again—following whatever interest, belief and thing that moved him. The Tao of Bowie gave me the confidence to just be myself.
There was a mysticism to Bowie that followed him to his end. It was something Sphinx-like and unreachable. One of my favorite songs of his is “The Bewlay Brothers.” It’s bizarre and unsettling. I have had it on a playlist of songs that don’t make sense to me that I love. They all seem above meaning.
Yesterday, I listened through my favorite Bowie songs in reflection. When this one came up, I thought I’d seek out some meaning. Wikipedia came to my aid and provided this quote from Bowie:
“I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.”
Don’t worry, I had to look up the word too.
A palimpsest is a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
That’s my mystic relationship with David Bowie then. Him finding things and writing over them—the meaning garbled and warped. I pick it up and assign my own meaning to it. Add words to the lines in between. The perpetual palimpsest of his art, music, and legacy will be redefined, rebuilt, recreated, and rewritten by me and countless others.
Thanks David Bowie, for everything. You will be missed.