We Always Knew Who David Bowie Really Was

It’s strange the way we mourn in fragments now, not just performing our grief on social media, but mining our memory banks for the thing we know about the famous person who died that others might not remember. Unattractive yet forgivably human tendencies to make someone else’s tragedy about us aside, there is a certain logic to celebrating David Bowie, in particular, this way: his was a life full of phases, references, rarities, detours, anomalies, unbelievable-yet-somehow-true stories, and footnotes. Though his 69 years included a full decade of relative silence, he left behind a body of work so extensive, dense, and diverse that it’s impossible for even his biggest fans (hi) to feel that we know it all intimately. And his legacy goes far beyond what can even be called “his work.”

But I find myself somehow incapable of appreciating – or registering, really – most of the well-intentioned, hyper-specific remembrances that have been whooshing by since I got out of bed, then got right back into it, this morning. (“Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie asks in “Girl Loves Me,” a song from Blackstar. It’s an uncharacteristically blunt lyric, one that, like so many moments on the new album, chilled me the first time I heard it.) This is as selfish a reaction as any you’ll find on Twitter, to be sure, but on the first day of our lives without David Bowie, I’m desperate for some acknowledgment that what he gave us over the decades was more than disconnected fragments. I can’t stomach all the clichés about how he was a chameleon or a shape-shifter or opaque or unknowable. Now that we’ve seen the beginning and the end of his creative output – now that we know he confronted his mortality by making us one last singular album that speaks to the experience of knowing you’re on the verge of death – the idea that he hid the truest, most essential parts of himself from his audience sounds more than incorrect; it sounds unconscionable.

So here is my brief, disorganized attempt at synthesis, written in a few sad, shocked hours but gestated over more than 15 years: I think David Bowie was an artist who could construct identities and embody them so convincingly, then deconstruct them and move on so quickly, because he knew that makeup and costumes and backstories and sexual proclivities were above all a tantalizing way to put across ideas that are more difficult to convey through pop music than through perhaps any other artistic medium. As the critic Nancy Erlich realized almost a year before Ziggy Stardust’s emergence, “David Bowie is the most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression.” It must have come across as hyperbolic at the time, but I’ve never read a more concise description of what sets him apart than the one contained in that sentence.

So what were those ideas that told us who Bowie really was? At risk of repeating what I wrote in 2014 about his pointedly titled anthology Nothing Has Changed, he seemed to me to be wholly consumed by the knowledge of how fleeting and insignificant one human life is in the grand scheme of the universe. His career-long preoccupations with outer space, and death, and briefly ducking the weight of the human predicament through love or drugs or acts of self-creation — they’re all different facets of that obsession. Bowie is often described as fearless, but in many ways, he was ruled by his dread of death: his refusal to travel by airplane was notorious, and the word “fear” suffuses this Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire from 1998. In his 20s, he ran from the certainty of nonexistence by making and then killing and then outliving an alien creature who looked just like him. His courage in art, perhaps, came from the comfort of knowing it was something he could control.

I am trying not to think too much about the practicalities of Bowie’s death — about how purposeful it seems that a person who devoted his full self to art died two days after the release of his final album and just over a week before the end of his show Lazarus’ run in his adopted home of New York City. But in the 18 months after he received his fatal cancer diagnosis, he found a way to be jarringly honest about it. Blackstar isn’t an album about making peace; it’s an album about looking nervously forward to whatever terrifying future – or non-future – awaits. Maybe, when we’ve had five more decades to think about it, we’ll remember that as his greatest achievement.

Insisting on Bowie’s philosophical consistency as an artist and a human being (not, finally, an alien or a god) is a way of acknowledging that the most vital element of his personality — his intelligence — was fully present in the things he created. It doesn’t mean we should discount the way his individual personae pushed generations of us to be freer and braver in our own lives. Of course it was Ziggy Stardust who made it possible for me to see past high school; I still lace up silver platform boots or blast “Queen Bitch” when nothing but the illusion of sci-fi self-actualization will get me through the day.

His ever-changing costumes never had anything on his unwavering power to translate ontological dilemmas into popular music, though. The apocalypse sketched in charcoal on “Blackstar” is only a more personal version of the Technicolor disaster movie “Five Years,” which opens Ziggy; both songs careen dangerously from hopelessness to transcendence and back, and make you feel Bowie’s own brand of existentialism viscerally. That was his alchemical formula, the talent that allowed him to take insights and shape them into feelings. For all the storied debauchery (and unlike Jimmy Page or Janis Joplin or Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger), Bowie has always been more brain than body, more intellect than appetite.