At the time of writing, over Forty-eight hours have passed since the news. The essays and tributes are still flooding in and here I am, still reading them. The reason why is that so many of these eulogies feel so personal and subjective; I’m not reading the same biographical details over and over. By and large, people are using Bowie to talk about themselves.
We’re both asked to sit down and write what images, sounds and memories come to mind when we think of David Bowie. The chances are we’ll both end up with a very different list. Here are some of things that might be on mine:
For me its buying a CD of Low when I was fourteen for £5 from Resident, hearing ‘Sound and Vision’ for the first time and feeling as electric as the blue coloured room he’s singing about. Years later, I’m watching the scene from The Man who Fell to Earth that the album cover is a still from. He’s standing at the end of a dock looking out onto the water, like Gatsby pining for Daisy’s green light.
It’s finding a list of his favourite books online whilst an English literature student, and being thrilled we both shared a penchant for Japanese author Yukio Mishima. A web of possibilities between different art forms is opening up, all pulling from and influencing each other.
It’s the howl of despair on ‘Word on a Wing’. He sounds like he’s been carved out, totally hollow and desperate for something to ignite feeling within him. He sings about “this age of grand illusion” and it sounds so baroque compared to any conception I have of the world. I’m beginning to realise music can just as strongly produce the sensation of absence as it can emotion. I’m beginning to finally articulate depression.
It’s watching him on Soul Train performing ‘Fame’. Rakish thin and in a horrendous oversized yellow collar, oozing a certain cool I don’t think any other human in history as ever managed to capture. Previously self-conscious of it, my own slight build suddenly feels like a blessing
Now he’s pulling Ryuichi Sakamato towards him in the climax of the World War II film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and kissing him on the cheek. That famed sexual ambiguity now being used to channel a desperate attempt to reach out across cultural barriers in the de-humanising and hellish reality of war.
Being of a certain age, much of my relationship with him has been fragmentary and non-linear. For those around during his prime, his evolution would be happening in real time and anchored to those moments. It might be watching his video for ‘Let’s Dance’ on MTV, dressed in white gloves in a searing desert heat. A decade before that watching ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops, with one arm round Mick Ronson’s shoulder.
Bowie has always been celebrated for his multiple personas, but in actuality it’s even more multi-faceted and labyrinthine than that. For every person he meant something to, there’s a different version of Bowie. Built up from different aspects of his career that you discovered at significant times in your life, and what they revealed to you about yourself or the world.
Glam-rock Bowie never meant much to me. To this day I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down and listened to Ziggy Stardust all the way through from start to finish, something that I’ve done more with Station to Station than perhaps any other album, and give me “Heroes” over Aladdin Sane and day of the week. But that aspect of him is treasured so dearly by so many, it almost feels like it doesn’t matter if it’s not a significant part of my conception.
This is the reason why his loss will feel so personal to so many of us. What Bowie means to me wont be the same as for you, and chances are no-ones versions are identical. We have all lost someone specific to ourselves. Everyone knew a different Bowie, but all will be missed just as dearly.