Mourning a Godstar
David Bowie and his music touched audiences around the world both during and after his life.
In planning a season that looks at the rituals used to mark out the course of a life, from cradle to grave, we at Stanford Live knew that we would pay special consideration to those rituals summarizing the whole—the memorials, the tributes, the artistic eulogies of iconic lives that have shaped our culture. We asked rock critic and recent Stanford Live guest speaker Simon Reynolds, who faced his own task of eulogizing, to reflect on the passing of glam-rock legend David Bowie, whose album Blackstar will be performed at the Bing.
The night that the news went out that David Bowie had died, I was just finishing a book in which he was the central figure. On January 10, 2016, I was literally on the last pages of my glam-rock history, Shock and Awe, when Twitter told me that this towering pop figure had fallen.
A mixture of emotions muddied my mind. Having labored for three years on the book, I felt like I had an unusual intimacy with Bowie, as if I truly understood his motivations—specifically that ache of emptiness that drove him in search of a succession of cutting edges, a desperate hunger for new ideas to kindle the creative spark within him. At the same time, having reached the end of my book, I felt oddly detached, as if I had finished with Bowie, or even—in some superstitious way—finished him off.
As I was born in Great Britain but have been a resident of America since 1995, Bowie’s passing was further entangled with my growing feelings of nostalgia: he’d loomed over the 1970s, my childhood, just like the Beatles had dominated the 1960s. Bowie’s songs were a perpetual presence on U.K. radio; his face appeared regularly on TV, especially on the weekly pop show Top of the Pops. From the entrancing strangeness of “Space Oddity,” through the homoerotic intimations of “John, I’m Only Dancing,” to the cross-dressing subversions of the promo video for “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie had not only always been there, he’d always been startling. For many people across the world, but particularly for those who grew up in the U.K. during that era, Bowie’s sudden nonexistence felt like a part of the sky had suddenly vanished.
Bowie during recording for the Dutch television program Top of the Pops (1974)
More ignoble thoughts intruded amid the grief. I did think, selfishly, “Damn, there’s going to be a flood of Bowie-related books rush-written to compete with my own tome, over which I’ve toiled so diligently and protractedly.” There was a little annoyance, too, as it became clear that despite my exhaustion I would have to resume work immediately and write an extra closing essay to round off the book. Ending Shock and Awe with Bowie peeved me because one intention starting out had been to put the man in his place just a little: I aimed to contextualize Bowie, reconstruct the culture and the rock music discourse out of which he’d emerged while also elevating other artists now semi-forgotten but who at the time were considered his contemporaries and artistic equals (as well as often selling many more records than him, in fact). I hadn’t wanted my history to become his story—but here was Bowie upstaging everyone again, insisting on being the last word, or at least the last subject for my words, in the Book of Glam.
Talking about upstaging—Bowie’s death coincided with the Golden Globes, which meant that he knocked all the winners off the front page worldwide, outshone the world’s stars with his own supernova—including Lady Gaga, the figure who’d done her darnedest to be the Bowie of the 21st century and that night had won a trophy for her turn in American Horror Story.
As I returned reluctantly to my computer, I pondered how to approach the daunting task of summing up a man’s life and work. All around, online and print sources teemed with thousands of public tributes and private testimonials—a fiesta of remembrance in which professional writers and fans alike competed to find fresh perspectives and idiosyncratic angles. Especially because my essay would have a longer shelf life, it felt like I should attempt to speak not just for my own feelings but for the larger community of people who had been affected by Bowie’s existence. There were many notes being sounded in those weeks immediately after his death, but a prominent leitmotif was gratitude, tinged with self-congratulation. This sentiment was crystallized most sharply in the widely circulated statement, mistakenly attributed to the actor Simon Pegg: “If you’re sad today, just remember the Earth is over four billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” As is so often the case with the passing of a pop-culture icon—think of Prince—it felt like people were mourning themselves by proxy, coming to terms with the fading of their own time, and holding fast to the consoling belief that they lived through an exceptional era.
I decided to approach the essay as a eulogy, written on behalf of the gathered grieving, yet I would also try for something almost impossible: an honest eulogy. In other words, I would aim to be true to the insights about his character, motivations, influence, and legacy that had emerged through writing the book (a verdict more ambivalent than you might expect) while still transmitting a sense of awe that someone so strange and ambitious could have moved within the humble domain of pop music. I wanted to convey a sense of how improbable it all was, really—and how unlikely to happen again, despite the wishful efforts of figures like Gaga or Kanye West or Janelle Monáe to achieve something equivalent in terms of art-into-pop impact.
The root meaning of the word eulogy in Ancient Greek is “speak well.” The funeral oration is meant to be a song of praise, and that means it almost inevitably becomes a whitewash, a lick of paint covering over the cracks and fault lines. The death of someone is not the best time for airing the whole truth about that someone. Instead, just like the cosmetically enhanced face of the dearly departed at an open-casket funeral, you are trying to fix the final and lasting image of that person as seen in their very best light. The mortician and the eulogist are in the same business, really.
Amid the collective outpouring of grief and gratitude for Bowie’s sonic and style innovations, his persona shifts and image games and the sheer drama of a career played out on the stage of the mass media, there was understandably scant inclination for a close examination of the less wholesome or impressive sides of his work. Like that alarming phase in the mid-1970s when Bowie talked in fascist terms of the need for a strong leader and called for an anti-permissive crackdown on liberal decadence. Or all those credulous and indiscriminate flirtations with magic and mysticism that ran through much of his life (again reaching an unsightly climax in the cocaine-crazed years circa 1974–1976). People likewise didn’t dwell much on the long period during which Bowie’s Midas touch failed him: the years of the “Blue Jean” mini-film, the Glass Spider tour, Labyrinth, Tin Machine and the Beard…a period that if you were being honestly harsh constituted (give or take the occasional quite cool single) an unbroken desert of inspiration and direction that lasted three whole decades: 1983 to 2013, from the last bars of Let’s Dance to the first ones of The Next Day. I distinctively remember that through much of that time, Bowie dropped away not just as a figure who frequented the pop charts or commanded attention but even as a reference point, something that new bands would cite as a model or touchstone.
"Maybe it’s my age, but I’m sure I can’t be alone in feeling that important pop cultural figures are dying off at an accelerated rate. Then again, perhaps this is an illusion created by the sheer overload of coverage triggered by each passing: the internet and social media create so much opportunity and space for remembrance..."
It makes sense that the least compelling phases or most questionable aspects of Bowie’s life wouldn’t figure in the immediate post-mortem reckoning. Speaking ill of the recently dead is not a good look. But something of Bowie’s complexity—his flaws and his follies—got written out with the concentrated focus on his genius achievements, personal charm, and acts of generosity.
Maybe it’s my age, but I’m sure I can’t be alone in feeling that important pop cultural figures are dying off at an accelerated rate. Then again, perhaps this is an illusion created by the sheer overload of coverage triggered by each passing: the internet and social media create so much opportunity and space for remembrance, and the profusion of outlets fuels a competition to offer ever more forensically deep or differently angled takes on the departed artist. There seems to be a widespread compulsion felt by civilians as well as professional pundits to make an immediate public statement: the news goes out that an icon has gone and Facebook teems with oddly official-sounding bits of writing that often read like obituaries with a slight first-person twist.
Sometimes I’ve felt that people protest a little too much about their intense relationship with the extinguished star. Where did all these people come from with their lifelong and surprisingly deep acquaintance with the oeuvre of Tom Petty? Who knew there were people who bothered with the three George Michael albums after 1990’s Listen with Prejudice Vol. 1? And surely I’m not the only one out there who—while fully cognizant and wholly respectful of the world-historical eminence of Aretha Franklin—only ever owned her Greatest Hits and—if I’m honest—really only ever craves to hear “I Say a Little Prayer”?
The truth of pop for most people, I suspect, is that we use the music to soundtrack our lives but in a fairly fickle, personal pleasure–attuned way, and—apart from a few formative exceptions, the kind of teen infatuations that shape worldviews—we seldom engage with the totality of an artist’s work and life. Tom Petty, for me, boils down rather brutally to the urge to turn up the volume when “Free Falling” and “Don’t Come around Here No More” come on the radio (in other words, he’s on the same level as the Steve Miller Band and Bachman-Turner Overdrive). Unfair or not, George Michael reduces to a couple of nifty Wham singles plus “Faith” and “Freedom! ’90.” A few moments of unreflective pleasure in the lives of millions of casual listeners is no small achievement, although it wouldn’t have been enough for these guys, who craved to be Serious Artists on the level of those they venerated: Dylan and the Byrds for Petty and someone like Stevie Wonder or Prince for Michael. No amount of earnest reassessment or auteurist reappraisal could persuade me to dig deep into their discographies for those lost gems tucked away on Side 2 of a late-phase album.
You’ll get no argument from me about Bowie, of course: career doldrums and dodgy opinions aside, he’s as major an artist as rock has produced, worthy of taking as seriously as anybody (which is why the fascist flirtations and the half-baked occultism are troubling, as opposed to something you’d laugh off in a lesser figure). And Bowie also did what almost no fatally ill or otherwise declining pop star has ever managed, which is to go out on an artistic high. Beyond their musical daring and desperate expressive intensity, Blackstar and the videos for “Lazarus” and the title track made for a fitting last statement because of the sheer care that went into them. This was so utterly characteristic of Bowie and the way he went about things. Who among us—facing the final curtain, sick in body and frail spirit—could have summoned the obsessive energy and psychic strength to meticulously craft their artistic farewell to the world? Who, confronting oblivion, would have been so concerned about how they looked and sounded at the end? Only Bowie.
As I found writing Shock and Awe, the beginning of Bowie’s public life was faltering, a series of false starts and fumbled career moves. It took Bowie eight years of dithering and stylistic switches to really become a star. In contrast, the closing of his career was immaculately executed. What some sceptics always regarded as his core flaws—cold calculation, excessive control—triumphed at the end. Bowie organized a grand exit so elegant that it fixed forever our final image of him, rendering all eulogies superfluous.
—Simon Reynolds is the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 and the history of glam-rock Shock and Awe.
Related Event: Nov 7
David Bowie's Blackstar