We get the news of celebrities dying on a steady basis. After all celebrity culture has been around long enough and has grown large enough to sustain a steady stream of faces into the In Memoriam slide show at any given award show in any given field. The curious thing is not all celebrity deaths affect everyone the same. You know, the difference in generation or genre or a myriad of factors that add up to influence. Not everyone will be touched in the same way. For me David Bowie’s death kicked me in the guts. I was already having trouble sleeping. One of those nights when you can hear the synapses firing and feel the heat rolling off the nerve endings like lightning from an East Texas thunderstorm. I sat in bed when the alert on my phone buzzed. Breaking News. Well, fuck. I can’t help but do a mental retrospective, to try and trace time. I remember a small apartment just off Harmon between the 7-11 where transvestites cruised for sex and the country club behind the Las Vegas Hilton. Me and my new wife (I’ll call her Lynne) and her record collection.
David Bowie’s records spinning on the turntable and us singing along…. “Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?” Yes we were. 19 and 18, she still in high school, having eloped to the Justice of the Peace after a night of binge drinking after The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We swerved between the carpool lane and the fast lane to drug abuse and burning up on reentry. Can you hear me, Major Tom? But that’s another story with all the cops, guns, blood, and falling to Earth.
What I loved first was the music. Bowie hit all the right notes and said all the right things. I’ve heard tell he appealed to the loners, the outcasts, the outsiders and the alienated because he was one of us. Yes us, because Lynne and I seemed to shift between the fabric of the world. No one else we knew were married and everyone else thought we were insane. Two disaffected youth getting married to push against the new structure of not getting married? I finally saw Bowie’s incarnations and his chameleon shifting. No chameleon is wrong. He didn’t shift to blend in, to be camouflaged, but to stand out. Starman up in space like a constellation. There, but untouchable. Talk about alienated trying to make life work. But it was Ziggy who gave me permission to paint my face and go rage the town with my wife. We killed it on the long slide to bedlam. There was no future in what we were doing, but every generation has its lost youth.
So I love David Bowie even more today than I did yesterday. He has always been a presence in my life, but the first entry and the exit will stick with me like burned skin. Today as I drove around the oilfield, I reflected about the suddenness of a death 18 months in the making. I reflected on a man who walked into a night club sometime during that 18 months and decided to make an album with the jazz musicians playing in there. The album Blackstar released on his 69th birthday, two days before the cancer killed him. The man who co-wrote a play, Lazarus, on Broadway as he prepared to cross the sill of life. Is there life on Mars? I don’t know, but there is life here and David Bowie created and recreated it until he died. Imagine, I reflected, to have that fire. I want to turn 69 and have something released that day. Not a blogpost no one reads, but a film or a book or a photo exhibition or a fucking play.
I want to keep creating in the midst of dying. Like Bowie. It is as if he simply used up his life. Nothing left to give. He burned out.
I was once a young American and didn’t know what that even meant. But as Lynne and I sang our hearts out in that dingy apartment on the backside of the glitz that is the Las Vegas Strip, we just knew we could be heroes. There was not one soul who could say otherwise. We could make our own lives. And then recreate them from whatever we had left after burning out and start over. And so I say, O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills… But alas…. RIP David Bowie, Lazarus. What shape have you shifted to now?