“I’ve heard a rumor from ground control
Oh no, don’t say it’s true”
—David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes,” 1980
This past Saturday, I was celebrating David Bowie’s 69th birthday “with” him. His new album Blackstar had just come out—a gift from him to us, but it wasn’t the only gift that he gave. On Monday morning, when I heard the news of his death, he personally gave me another gift that I have been slowly opening all week.
In his life he showed us a way that we can choose to live. We can choose to live life to its fullest. We can choose to question authority, to question society and to question ourselves. NOW, in his death, he has shown us a way in which we can die with dignity and grace. He showed us how to die without fear. It was the same way in which David Bowie lived: without fear. I know that I am not privy to his dying thoughts, and I do not pretend to know him, but his art showed us who he was and who he was was ever-changing.
He changed from David Jones (his birth name) to David Bowie, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, from his “plastic soul” to drum and bass, from acoustic-driven folk rock on his first album to the outer-space jazz of his 27th and final album.
Will I hit the studio the way the David Bowie did towards the end of his life?
Before he became a Blackstar, the Starman was a bonafide superstar. In the mid-1980s I was in elementary school, and David Bowie was EVERYWHERE. He was all over MTV with the Let’s Dance album. He played to an estimated 1.5 billion people during 1985’s Live Aid and the video that premiered during that show—a duet of “Dancing In The Street” with Mick Jagger—almost RUINED David Bowie for me for the next decade. It was too much for this conservative 10-year-old little boy (known to his family as Little Bobby) to handle. David and Mick were dancing around, literally shaking their asses and almost kissing in a few shots. That is how my 10-year-old brain saw it. And because I was afraid of it, I didn’t like it.
Flash forward 12 years and, as I was finishing college, I bought a used copy of Bowie’s 1973 album of covers, Pin Ups, because it had a cover of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.” I immediately fell in love with the whole album and over the next few years I began collecting Bowie’s work.
One day, in 1999, I saw a movie titled Velvet Goldmine and became infatuated with the glam half of glam rock. It is a movie based on the career of Mr. Bowie, but unable to get the rights for his music, the producers had to “settle” for Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Lou Reed and others. Within a year, I dressed for Halloween as my favorite character from the movie. Soon thereafter, my girlfriend dumped me—and partially because of that broken heart, I decided I did not want to wait for Halloween to wear glitter, feathery hats, shiny pants, etc. I didn’t want to wait to be “somebody else,” so a friend and I decided to form a band, which would enable me to play dress-up every week or so when we performed. And the rest, as they say is history—my own personal history of reinventing myself.
I reclaimed the name Little Bobby from my childhood, and once I realized the makeup and feathers attracted beautiful girls, it was on. I began wearing as much vibrant makeup as I could find, along with feather boas, gloves, the tightest tight pants and the tiniest tiny shirts. I was “that guy who wears the makeup,” and when my first album came out, the Weekly Alibi wrote, “He’s the guy at the rock club with asymmetrical eye makeup and oversized knee-high boots.”
My plan worked. I set out to be someone else and eventually became me. I also got noticed as an artist, which is important in a sea of faces. Over the years, I’d like to think that my musical talents have caught up with my makeup skills.
But the fact remains that all of my efforts as a performing musician started, very simply, because I wanted to dress up for fun, for the sake of exploration, and most importantly, because I did not even know who I was. That was something that I had to spend many years discovering.
David Bowie discovering and inventing himself all those decades ago helped me to discover myself. And he is still helping me.
When his death reached me this week, I thought of my musician friend Jim who died last year, also from cancer. I thought of my best friend from high school, Mike, who died of cancer at the age of 36. I thought of my friend Quincy, a local producer, who also died from cancer. And I thought of myself. The self that I have been discovering for so many years. I think of my own death getting closer each day.
Will I hit the studio the way David Bowie did towards the end of his life? Will I write, mix and create if I ever have a terminal disease? He inspires me still in the way he faced death. He wrote music, he sang, arranged and produced while battling this illness. He created an off-Broadway play about the new album, about loss and grief. He also created some amazingly beautiful videos, and I won’t be surprised if there are more surprises yet to come.
As I’ve spent the last week soaking in that he is gone, he is more in my life than ever—in my psyche, in my ears and in my spine as I dance a dance of joyous grief for a friend whom I never met, but a true friend nonetheless. He showed me how to live, fearless, without caring what others think of what I wear, who I love, or who I am.
And now in death, he showed me how to die, fearless. David Bowie showed me how to keep living until the very end, to keep creating, for others, and for the self that I have been, until death releases me from the illusion of self altogether.
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar
—David Bowie, “Blackstar” 2016