I got a rumor from Ground Control…oh no, don’t say it’s true:
Sadly, it IS true. David Bowie is gone. And he has left us a final space oddity to remember him by in the form of his last album, Blackstar. And the video for the title track is a bizarre jewel that only makes sense now:
It opens with a shot of a temple on another world, in which Major Tom’s space suit lies empty. There is a priestess who guards a jewel-encrusted skull which, presumably, comes from the lost astronaut. And David Bowie, alien visitor, is revisiting the hero of one of his earliest hits, paying homage to his remains. It seems not to make much sense until one realizes that he was contemplating his own impending death at the time the record and video were being made. And preparing them as a final goodbye to Planet Earth.
In a way, this feels like yet another coming-full-circle moment in the life of a man who did it over and over. David Bowie — himself just the stage persona of one David Jones, who changed his name only because there was another famous Davy Jones already — was one who birthed, gave life to, and then buried one persona after another, starting with this one:
Notice how he sings of his then-current persona in the past tense, and as if he were someone else that David Bowie, né David Jones, was merely a bandmate or fan of? Even so early in his career, he was already contemplating death, in a manner of speaking. It was the death of an alter ego. Ziggy “died” only to be replaced by Aladdin Sane, and then the Thin White Duke, as further stage personae gave way to one another in a dizzying succession.
Meanwhile, as the Seventies wore on and various drug-addicted rock gods (Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, among others) flamed out much too young, it seemed that David Bowie was in danger of dying himself. His cocaine addiction, a fueling factor behind the scandalous phase that began with Ziggy and ended with the Duke, was starting to torment him with hallucinations (like the “little green wheels” that followed him, in “Ashes to Ashes”) and paranoia. His first marriage, always tumultuous, was failing. He was malnourished, and it showed in his face. He realized he would not last long if he remained in Los Angeles, where he was then living the dangerous high life. Scary monsters were after him in truth. Terrified, he fled to West Berlin in 1976, and stayed for three more years. There, he came back down to Earth, finally got clean and made a full recovery, and released three more successful albums in the meantime. A chance sighting of a pair of young lovers by the Berlin Wall inspired him to this iconic title track:
After that, there were no more drug-addled, space-cadet personae layered on top. In the 1980s, with the releases of Let’s Dance and Modern Love, his career hit an all-time high, with no more of those terrifying near-crashes. In that sense, he was lucky; unlike Major Tom, he made it out of that tin can alive, and with feet firmly planted on earthly soil. His continued survival, both as a musician and as a human being, confounded all the critics who had predicted an early end for him. For four more decades, he carried on stronger than ever, and seemingly invincible. His career expanded still further, and in the early 1980s, and he became David Bowie, the actor. No one who has seen him as the Goblin King, or Pontius Pilate, or the Elephant Man, can forget that he was as multifaceted and enigmatic an actor as he was a singer, songwriter and musician. His rough-hewn face, with its one pale blue eye and one permanently greyed in the iris, with a dilated pupil thanks to a teenaged fistfight over a girl, was both expressive and deceptive. There was a duality about him: the public persona, the private; the ever-changing image, and the constant thread of remarkable creativity behind it. He was as natural an actor as he was a musician, and he was blessed with the acumen to navigate seamlessly from one phase to the next.
Who was David Bowie? For some, he was a rock god, a movie star, a fashion icon, a business wizard; for others, the dubious guy who infamously deflowered a fifteen-year-old groupie (Lori Mattix, who then went on to be virtually sequestered for the next three years by a still more dubious character, namely Jimmy Page). For some, he’s the queer hero who was openly bisexual, carrying on with man after man at a time when British law had only just stopped jailing men for homosexual acts. For others, he’s the lucky devil who married that fabulous Somali supermodel, Iman. Before he met her, he was a man who’d grown jaded with promiscuity; one whose three-year love affair with Susan Sarandon, which began during the filming of The Hunger, apparently marked his tilt in favor of women for the rest of his days. He scandalized, inspired, bewitched and bewildered everyone. He was undeniably great; he was just as undeniably flawed; he was irreducibly complex. He wore his humanness on his sleeve, no matter what other persona was in charge at the moment.
David Jones, a mortal man, died of cancer just yesterday. But David Bowie, the stage persona? He’s immortal, beyond doubt. He lives on in all he left behind for us, the Earthlings. He collaborated often and generously with others, both equally famous and less so; he believed firmly in giving a hand up to young, up-and-coming talents, and lived his belief repeatedly. His last record was, in effect, a goodbye gift for all who loved him and his music. And it is this that we Earthlings will cherish as his intimation of immortality.