When Morgan Freeman joked during the Golden Globes last night that a long applause from the audience meant that they thought he would die soon, it occurred to me what a monumental loss that will be to the entertainment world when it actually occurs. Hopefully, it won’t happen for many years. Then, I woke up this morning to discover that David Bowie has passed from this world.
For a good deal of time I only had my initial, guttural reaction to the news. “What?!” I couldn’t think anything else but unspeakable shock about it for much of the morning. I don’t think I was in shock so much because of the surprise of the news, although I didn’t really see it coming. Perhaps the release of his new album on Friday lulled me to sleep on the possibility of his demise, but it really had never even occurred to me that he might be sick at any time in the future, let alone now. Was his 18-month battle with cancer public knowledge? I don’t remember hearing anything about it. But I don’t think my inability to process this loss has anything to do with the unexpected nature of it.
It’s funny how pop culture icons deaths can be harder to process than those of people near and dear to us. With someone close to you, is easier to follow the progress of their lives and their influence over your own. With a music icon, because you don’t have the personal interaction, they remain a profound contributor that has a very personal effect on your life, but that influence is something of omniscience. They make these pieces of art that affect you at whatever point in your life that you are in when you discover them, so their influence is more about you and nothing about them. Their deaths, however, mean that their particular influence will never occur again. You must go on missing something that has been there for important moments of your life.
I never obsessed over Bowie the way I have many artists. My youth was very influenced by music, but for a while, Bowie’s presence was restricted to one of his few commercial hits, the “Let’s Dance” album, which produced the biggest singles of his career, the title track, “Modern Love” and “China Girl.” Despite the fact that this album is often considered merely a commercial outing, it has always been one of my favorites. It also provided the introduction of many to the guitar styling of Stevie Ray Vaughn, who was hand picked by Bowie to be a featured player on a few of the album’s tracks, including the title track. Vaughn released his own debut album in the same year.
Of course, I was aware of Bowie’s songs long before I was necessarily aware of Bowie as an artist. I knew that he and John Lennon shared the troubles of “Fame”. I knew that Ground Control really wanted to get a hold of Major Tom. I was aware of some Space Oddity out there in the rock world who dressed pretty weird and sang about things like “Life On Mars” (and Spiders from there) and a “Man Who Sold the World”, and even a “Man Who Fell to Earth”. He was some sort of Martian. And now that I’ve written it out, I realize I did know it was David Bowie and that his music and persona were pretty interesting. I just never really pursued it at the time. I was also pretty surprised to learn that some band named Mott the Hoople were the ones concerned about “All the Young Dudes”. How could that song not be Bowie? I later learned it was.
I really started exploring Bowie in college. I was leaving my high school best friends, who had cultivated my passion for music, and felt I should really start exploring some of those artists they had passions about. David was our Bowie guy. He gifted me Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” and “Low” albums. I bought a few others. Then “Outside” was released to pretty heavy critical acclaim. Hailed as a return to prominence after Bowie had explored embracing pop and jazz sensibilities in the 80s and early 90s as both a solo artist and through his band Tin Machine, “Outside” was a dark concept album that reminded me of such films as “Blade Runner” and the works of David Lynch. Lynch used the single “I’m Deranged” for his “Lost Highway” soundtrack two years later.
In fact, Bowie’s music has long been associated with the movies they’ve appeared in for me. We all became the “Young Americans” after seeing John Hughes’ teenage ponderings in “Sixteen Candles”. Wes Anderson has always included a good helping of Bowie in his quirky world soundscapes. In fact, his music seems to fit movies about outsiders particularly well, showing up in such cinematic mix tapes as “Rushmore”, “Juno” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. I think my favorite cinematic kidnapping of one of Bowie’s songs is “Queen Bitch” in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. It’s also used very well in “Young Adult”.
Bowie’s own cinematic career isn’t without its highlights. He was “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in Nicholas Roeg’s isolated adaptation of the novel about an alien who comes to Earth to gather water for his own dying planet, becoming a billionaire to complete his task and inviting the greed of others into his plan. He looked like he might be heading for a strong dramatic movie career with early 80’s arthouse entries like “The Hunger” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”. Unfortunately, his best-known cinematic role became that of Jareth the Goblin King in the chaotic children’s fantasy from Jim Henson’s workshop “Labyrinth”, which is one of those movies that you may have fond memories of from your childhood, but really isn’t very good. Still, he continued to have good supporting roles in celebrated films. He played a sympathetic Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ”. He had a natural turn as Andy Warhol in the art world biopic “Basquiat”. He even made inventor Nikola Tesla seem like the sane one in Christopher Nolan’s science-based magic thriller “The Prestige”.
It always seemed to me that no matter your experience with Bowie, as long as you had an appreciation for the artists above the commercial, he would give you something you were looking for. Even after years of albums coming across as dry or hard to find an entry point, he was capable of producing something that spoke to me somewhere within each of them. With his previous effort, “The Next Day”, Bowie reminded me of everything he had done before to entrance me as a music aficionado. With his latest album, “Blackstar”, he haunts me and still astounds me with his ability to connect. His most likely intentionally prophetic video for the song “Lazarus” suggests that no matter what, Bowie was always going to be an artist through the very end. This is no surprise, especially to all those shocked by his death on this day.