The day after David Bowie’s album BlackStar was released, the day before David Bowie died, I was interviewing Minneapolis rapper Sean Anonymous for my Minneapolis music conversation podcast “Back to the City.” Following the interview, which dealt with Sean’s upcoming First Avenue birthday bash and Better Days, a record of his concerning the passing of his mother, Sean and I found ourselves falling into earnest reflection on the man who fell to earth.
What had Sean so intrigued is that his favorite artist, Kendrick Lamar, had been acknowledged as the major influence on this latest record by his late mother’s favorite artist, Bowie.
“Let the children lose it,” Sean mused, saying that he often considers having that lyric from “Starman” tattooed on his arm, in honor of his mother.
Within thirty-six hours of Sean Anonymous saying that Bowie would also be dead, following an eighteen-month battle with cancer that had been kept entirely private until both it and its victim had passed.
“No words right now, but RIP, and thank you“
The Next Day, at 1:40am, that was all I could put into words (or post) about Bowie’s death.
By 2:24am, words had come, though still just three, and they had begun as Bowie’s. They were from a song called “Sunday,” the first on Bowie’s twenty-second studio album, Heathen. Spoken from 2002, they seemed to speak of one Sunday and one Sunday only: Sunday January 10th 2016. Those words were “everything has changed.”
For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed.
And everything has changed.
5:15: the angels had gone, yet somehow, something remained, and – dumbfounded though I was – I could sense it, in large part because Bowie’s great friend and producer Tony Visconti has posted some extremely weighty words of his own:
He always did what he wanted to do and he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art.
Bowie, Visconti, Iman, and select others had known that Bowie was battling terminal cancer for a period of eighteen months, six months into which he arrived at the Magic Shop recording studio to start tracking his final album; and seventeen months into which he arrived at the New York Theatre Workshop for the launch of its perfect counterpart, his first off-Broadway musical, Lazarus. With BlackStar due for release and Lazarus running, we now know from Visconti and Brian Eno’s accounts of their final exchanges with Bowie that he had plans for yet another Visconti-produced album and for a return to 1995’s Outside, “taking it somewhere new.” We will never know where else Bowie might have taken us had time – ever waiting in the wings – allowed him, but as Visconti concluded back on that devastating Monday morning:
He made BlackStar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”
It is fitting that Heathen is the album that first came to my mind (and rescue) following this news of Bowie’s passing, for as the author of an October 2002 Pulse of the Twin Cities cover-piece on Bowie observed, “an unexpected reunion with former Bowie collaborator as well as producer Tony Visconti” had been chief among the factors that figured “in the intimacy + spiritual examination + nostalgia equation” that was that album.
That cover-piece was composed by my wife, Brooke. As Brooke and I together tried to process Bowie’s passing, looking for shafts of light on that terrible morning, we found ourselves returning to her 2002 article on him.
The article concerned “Bowie’s impact on Minneapolis/St. Paul performers” back then, “the most evident example” of which – Brooke informed us – could “be found in Venus DeMars.” Reading that sentence (as true now as it was at the turn of the century) I fondly recalled my first experience of Venus’ glam rock band All the Pretty Horses, a magnificent performance of Bowie’s 2013 single “Where Are We Now?” at that year’s annual tribute to David Bowie at First Avenue. Come Christmas Eve 2014, Brooke and I would be sharing stories about our indebtedness to Bowie with Venus and her wife Lynette over diner, wine, and a perfect blend of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Black Tie White Noise. Come the morning of Monday January 11th 2016, Venus would be waking – on her birthday – to the news of her hero’s death, just two days after his own (sixty-ninth and final) birthday and the release of his (twenty-sixth and) final studio album.
“Thinking of you thinking of him on your birthday,” I posted on my friend’s Facebook wall, trying – for the first time – with words of my own to do for someone else what Visconti had begun to do for me. In case Venus hasn’t seen Visconti’s words yet, I also quoted him to and for her: “He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”
Also appropriate is the fact that age and aging were the subject of Venus’ reflections on Bowie to Brooke back in 2002: “I’ve always been really impressed with him ever since I was very little,” she shared. “Talking about Bowie, the sound of respect resonates in Venus’ voice,” Brooke reported as Venus proceeded to expand:
His creative approach to music—not really fitting into a particular genre, but going around to different ones experimenting—has been really exciting to watch. He’s been involved in almost all of it and is still viable—influencing and altering things.” Venus adds: “People look to him now as an established artist that is on the forefront of what happens when you’re ‘old’ in rock and roll. How do you deal with that? I’m continually fascinated by how he approaches his audience, his art, how he remains significant when rock music has traditionally not really been interested in anyone of ‘age’.
Evidently, there was something in the air (and – abracadoo, I lose you – something in my eye) for Bowie, to whom my wife-to-be had been granted access by his then-publicist Lathum Nelson, also had much to say to Brooke about being and becoming, and aging and age. Brooke reported:
In reference to his writing process for Heathen, Bowie reveals: “Sometimes you stumble across a few chords that put you in a reflective place. ‘Slip Away’ started like that. It’s odd, but even as a kid, I would write about ‘old’ and ‘other’ times as if I had a lot of years behind me. Now I do, so there’s a difference in the weight of memory. When you’re young, you’re still ‘becoming.’ At my age, I’m more concerned with being. I kind of miss that ‘becoming’ stage, as most times, you don’t really know what’s around the corner.”
“What is very enlightening for me right now,” Bowie also told Brooke, “is that I’m arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I’ve never experienced before. I’m going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever written in the coming years. I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy … Robert Johnson only had one album’s worth of work as his legacy. That’s all life allowed him.”
Echoing Bowie’s sentiment, I began to feel – beyond my grief – relief that life had granted this great man a final run of four consecutive Visconti-produced albums: not only 2002’s Heathen, but also 2003’s Reality and 2013’s The Next Day; and now, finally, two days before his death, the ultimate reflection on – and testament to – all that David Bowie became: 2016’s BlackStar.
Venus DeMars performing "Moonage Daydream" with All the Pretty Horses at First Avenue's Rock for Pussy in 2014. Photograph by Charles Robinson.
In 2002, when Heathen came out, I was an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in England and still very much in a “becoming” phase. Otherwise wedded as I was to academic study, friends with whom I studied would occasionally manage to lure me to a dorm room where I would unfailingly encounter an acoustic guitar waiting to do the rounds and strong encouragement to perform one particular, “Quicksand”-esque original that the teenage me had composed long before he became quite so scholarly. On one particular occasion, only the owner of that dorm room, Joe Swarbrick, and I had gathered there, this because neither of us knew anyone else in close orbit with comparable passion for David Bowie, to whose Heathen we were about to listen. Joe was especially struck by track three, “Slip Away,” the song to which Bowie had a month or so earlier referred when telling my future wife about the “reflective place” from which he was back then beginning to write.
Once a time
They nearly might have been
Bones and Oogie on a silver screen
No one knew what they could do
Except for me and you
They slip away.
It was to remain one of my fondest memories from my time at university, huddled around the stereo of another Bowie initiate, slipping away to the sound of our shared musical hero once again doing what we had always known he could do.
We were dumb
But you were fun, boy
How I wonder where you are.
By the afternoon of Monday January 11th 2016, Brooke was at work and I was at home, alone, thankful only that school was still out and that I had no students to teach on that strangest of days.
I recalled listening to BlackStar the previous day, blissfully unaware of the new significance that was just about to come to lyrics including “Blackstar”’s “something happened on the day he died”; “Lazarus”’s “look up here man, I’m in heaven”; “Dollar Days”’ “I’m dying to”; and, from “Girl Loves Me,” “where the fuck did Monday go?”
From across the years and the ocean, various friends and relations were then reaching out to help lift me out of my sad place.
And the girl next door
And the guy upstairs
Everyone says hi
And your mum and dad
Everyone says hi
“I remember listening to & singing along to David Bowie together when in rehearsals for our A level theatre performance,” shared one friend from Sixth Form College; “weirdly thought of that when I was running through my Bowie memories!” “Even after all these years, you were the first person I thought of when I heard this very sad news,” posted a friend from primary and secondary school; “same here,” responded the drummer from my secondary school band. Scrolling through my Facebook timeline (Facebook having become for a day “not facebook but a David Bowie tribute sight [sic]” in the words of one Minneapolis friend, Mike Geronsin) in an effort to discover “what’s what” with everyone who hasn’t yet said hi, Joe was at the front of my mind. When I found him, I found him doing just the same thing as me. From Oxford, England he reflectively posted:
It strikes me, reading everyone’s statuses and seeing all the pictures and songs posted, that we’ve all got a Bowie that’s ours alone. Whether he’s a visionary who pulled off the greatest postmodern coup de théatre in popular music, the musician who brought ambient electronic sounds to a generation, the pop star on your bedroom wall who whacked out hit after hit, the activist who wore makeup and kissed boys in public (even if it was just for show); for a few people he was a dad, a husband or a friend, and for others he was just the creepy dude manhandling a baby with his dick on show surrounded by muppets. He was any and all of this and more. We have our own conceptions of a man who remained elusive and mysteriously absent from his own work.
There is still so much Bowie I haven’t explored. As I’ve grown up, he’s grown up with me and surprised me over and over again. He reflected and refracted who I am and what I could be and it is difficult to overestimate his contribution to our culture. I feel very sad that he died, and remain astounded, enthused and inspired by the work and ideas that he leaves us.
Reflecting on the question of which Bowie or which Bowies were “mine,” I recalled the first time I encountered one that I immediately (and, strangely, quite viscerally) felt was not mine. This was the Bowie of Reality, the second of our four final Visconti albums.
To quote “Bewlay Brothers,” the cartoon Bowie of Reality seemed to me a caricature of various, earlier (for me) authentic Bowies, which was – of course – part of the point, with Bowie reflecting in a 2003 Sound On Sound interview that “reality has become an abstract for so many people over the last 20 years … and there’s a sense that we are adrift at sea.” As Bowie sang about flying from Planet X to Planet Alpha (“searching for reality, Ha! Ha! Ha! ha!”) I felt I was in on the postmodern joke, and yet – especially after Bowie’s apparent retreat into retirement in 2004 – I still felt it a shame that the chameleon pop-star’s final record should be this (to my mind, all-too-reflective) coldly Corinthian take on earlier years of “becoming.” At the same time, however, never having seen Bowie live, I also felt that this would be the time to catch him, with Bowie taking on, casting off, and shifting between The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack and the rest of his wonderful roles with the same elasticity that informed the new album. The same disinvestment from seeking authenticity in favor of aesthetic and epistemological playfulness that had left me feeling tepid about Reality the album had me waiting with trepidation for 10th July 2004, when – via Planets Alpha, Beta and Gamma – A Reality Tour was to land at Scotland’s T in the Park festival and I was to experience the great master of performance at his performative pinnacle.
“David Bowie has undergone an emergency heart operation for an acutely blocked artery, it emerged last night.”
So revealed The Guardian on Saturday, 10th July 2004; so I read in a field in Scotland on the morning of the day that I’d been waiting for. At over 110 shows, A Reality Tour was the longest in Bowie’s long career; most of my friends-to-be here in Minneapolis – including wife-to-be-Brooke – were at the Target Center show on 11th January 2004. Only fourteen shows of the tour were canceled, and the day for which I had been waiting was one of those fourteen days. Bowie would perform three songs of his own – “Changes,” “Wild is the Wind,” and “Fantastic Voyage” – on just one further occasion, in November 2006, after that; I was not at New York’s Hammersmith’s Ballroom when that happened.
After at least catching The Pixies (one of Tin Machine’s – and Bowie’s – biggest influences) in Scotland, I returned to Cambridge and completed my studies. During my M.Phil I briefly fronted a band called The New Teresas, the name of which referenced the final paragraph of Middlemarch by the nineteenth-century British novelist George Eliot, who became the focus of my Ph.D. The British higher education system was still reeling after the global financial crisis when I finished my doctorate, so I found myself teaching writing classes at the University of Minnesota from 2011. A year later, I had little or no reason to remain in (scary) America beyond the completion of that academic year’s contract. Then, in October 2012, I was brutally assaulted by strangers on the streets of Minneapolis. Kicked in the head so forcefully that it seemed to paramedics that brain damage was likely, I completed that semester’s teaching, then flew back to England to apply for a replacement for my stolen passport so as to be able to fulfill my contract, then get out of there.
I thought a lot about Bowie throughout December 2012, as – back in England – I strove to use the medium of songwriting to help me process and move beyond the assault. Despite believing, like most people at that time, that Bowie had retired from music for good, I thought of him as someone whose resilience and creative energy had uniquely impressed and inspired me before, so I ordered a Ziggy Stardust t-shirt online. (Perhaps I was grasping – as George Eliot might have glossed – after some “slight outward help towards calm resolve,” cognizant of “the tradition that fresh garments belonged to all initiation”). Having ordered the t-shirt, it struck me (and struck me as fitting) that Bowie’s sixty-sixth birthday was, in fact, approaching; then, on Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday the artist formally known as the Thin White Duke (and Ziggy, etc.,) returned unannounced with a brand new song, “Where Are We Now?”
Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Straße
A man lost in time
Just walking the dead.
Especially when assessed alongside Tony Oursler’s music video for it, “Where Are We Now?” seems much more the product of mature reflection on ‘“old” and “other” times than anything on Heathen or Reality. Aided by an immense “weight of memory” and visually transformed into nothing but a contemplative head, David is entirely static (being, not becoming) in a location evocative of a Berlin art studio (a scene of his becoming) with footage of 1970s Berlin and lyrics concerning the tentative Bösebrücke border crossing of 20,000 East Germans projected around and upon his almost-motionless face. Despite the direct causal connection, there could not have been a greater contrast between this unmoving, un-moveable Bowie (the prime mover, if you will) and the bustling Twin Cities music scene, which fate had determined would be at its most Bowie-mad just as I happened to be throwing my more-or-less-recuperated self back into its (still largely unknown) midst.
Fingers are crossed, just in case.
On Wednesday January 30th, my fantastic voyage through all things Minnesota-Bowie began with an annual dance party at a filled-to-960-person-capacity music venue called The Varsity Theatre. There, five hours of music videos (“60 – 70% Bowie … the others direct disciples or peers of the artist”) were projected onto a movie theatre screen adjacent to a dance-floor overflowing with scores of Ziggys and Goblin Kings and hundreds of other attendees, very many of them dressed in their favorite Bowie garb. The event was hosted by Minneapolis Public Radio DJ Jake Rudh, as well as KFAI DJ Thomas Wollenberg, aka DJ SLT, both of whom were also years into the habit of devoting annual radio shows to Bowie. Equally (if not more) elaborate was “Rebel Rebel! Rock for Pussy X. A Musical Tribute To David Bowie,” the tenth annual David Bowie Tribute night at First Avenue, with DJs including – again – Jake Rudh and a Bowie-catalog-playing-band comprised of John Eller, some of the finest players in the Twin Cites and a rotating cast of singers including Phil Solem of The Rembrants, Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland and – performing “Where Are We Now?” with her full band All the Pretty Horses – Venus De Mars.
As Brooke averred in 2002 and as I experienced from 2013, the Twin Cities music scene is utterly suffused by David Bowie. This has been the case for decades, but following Bowie’s death the flood gates opened with multiple tribute radio shows and club sets from DJs Jake Rudh and SLT; live tribute events involving local members of The Rembrandts, Greazy Meal, Prince’s The New Power Generation, Soul Asylum, and The Suburbs; Bowie art shows, even; and lots and lots of articles on Bowie, one of them – on the impact of Bowie’s death on our community in 2016 – composed by me.
“Is it fair to say we live in a post-Bowie world?”
This is a question with which I was confronted on stage by host Jim Walsh, having been invited to contribute a Bowie tribute set to his Mad Ripple Hootenanny event the Thursday following Bowie’s death (Venus too would perform such a set at an event run by Jim the following night). Before launching into “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” a “Space Oddity/ Blackstar” medley (the closest thing I could muster to What David Would Do) and a “Changes” sing-a-long, I suggested that there is no “post-Bowie” world: just a “pre-Bowie” one and the one, so very clearly touched and ch-ch-ch-changed by Bowie, that we are fortunate enough to inhabit.
Recalling again Tony Ousler’s video for “Where Are We Now?,” I am struck by two contrasts: first, that between Ousler’s contemplative-creator Bowie and the buzzing Bowie-loving music community that I first encountered just after the release of the third of Bowie’s final four Visconti-produced albums, The Next Day, in 2013; and secondly, the contrast between Ousler’s Bowie in that video and the exuberant, posturing, playful, performative Bowie that we encounter in both of Johan Renck’s BlackStar videos: a Bowie who is with all of his being and to the last engaged in the rapture of artistic composition in Lazarus; and who, thumb-to-nose and fingers flamboyantly waving in the video for BlackStar, seems determined to show us that this is what he will now and forever always, Bowie-like, be. Touching on just one of many other artful touches, it is while wearing the same outfit in which he is sketching The Tree of Life on the back cover of 1976’s Station to Station that Renck’s frenetic Bowie forever disappears through a darkened wardrobe door (from station to station? “from Kether to Malkuth”?) into – one imagines – some other spiritual realm in that video.
It’s quite wonderful that he’s stage-managed his own death in the way that he has: very fitting to his legacy and a kind of apotheosis; powerful and dignified. A piece of his own self-mythologizing.
These reflections on BlackStar and Bowie’s passing were among those shared with me online the day after Bowie’s death by an ex-student of mine, Dolman, whose dissertation on Victorian literature I supervised at Cambridge before making my move (A New Career in a New Town) to Minneapolis. “Just wanted to drop you a line in mutual mourning,” Dolman’s message began: “We never really spoke much about Bowie but I knew he was a hero of yours, as he has been of mine.” Wonderful writer that I have always known him to be, Dolman then shared some of the most insightful reflections on Bowie’s final masterpiece that I have yet encountered:
I’ve spent the whole weekend listening to the new album and I love it. It’s always fun to play “spot the self-reference” with Bowie: there seems to be a structural kinship with Station to Station, instrumental/textural links with Black Tie White Noise and Outside and Earthling, that harmonica in I Can’t Give Everything Away which seems to echo both “Never Let Me Down” and “A New Career in a New Town.” The track itself seems to have a kinship with the Heathen album as well. The triptych structure of the title track reminds me of “Sweet Thing/ Candidate/ Sweet Thing (Reprise)” – a favourite – and there’s a bit of bass in there (around 6.10 – 6.15) that I swear is a little nod to “Absolute Beginners” – another favourite. “Girl Loves Me” might be to A Clockwork Orange what “1984” was to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For me, Dolman’s comment about spotting “the self-reference” immediately brought to mind another moment from that one single day – Saturday January 9th – on which we were all simply enjoying BlackStar between its release that Friday and Bowie’s death that Sunday. As Brooke was hearing the song Lazarus for the first time, she was struck by one such sonic “self-reference,” so much so that she began singing “don’t forget to keep your head warm” over the “this way or no way” segment of the new song. Don’t forget to keep your head warm: a lyric from “Slip Away,” to which Joe and I had eagerly listened, huddling around his stereo, back in ’02. It’s a song-echo that I’d half-noticed myself a few days earlier, but hadn’t thought much of at the time, and now here was my wife, at the for-that-moment culmination of her own Bowie narrative, spotting the same self-reference. I thought about Bowie and I thought about Brooke, and I thought about how I would simply not have ended up remaining here in Minneapolis, doing whatever it was that I am doing here, and – in the process – connecting with her had it not been for the influence of he whose vast body of work happened in that moment to be drawing us to independently make the same connections. There seems something almost symbolic about this independent yet synchronous making of sonic connections, with not just Brooke and I doing it, but also Dolman and I (indeed, David’s final nod to “A New Career in a New Town” had already established itself as my own most treasured feature of the “parting gift”), and not just us three, but and hundreds and thousands (nay, millions) of Bowie fans each spotting such connections, that being just one of the countless ways in which Bowie was continuing to connect us socially, as for so long he had been.
Of course, with the assistance of Venus and various other local, Bowie-loving luminaries, I had no choice but to devote a double-length episode of my Minneapolis music podcast to Bowie. After almost three hours of that Bowie Retrospective had been tracked, with Venus closing what I had originally conceived as the final segment with a beautiful cover of “Five Years,” Brooke and I decided that there was one final thing to be done, and that it made total sense for that thing to be done by the two of us. With Iman having broken her “social media silence” by posting – quite simply – “Love and gratitude” a few days earlier, I had been reflecting a lot about David’s steadfast commitment to his wife and daughter Lexi throughout the last three decades. When asked in 1995 what had been his greatest achievement, David replied to music writer Simon Witter “marrying my wife.” “But as a musician,” Witter prompted. David’s response: “Nothing else matters.” I feel it is significant that this was David’s response, not Bowie’s response. “I fell in love with David Robert Jones,” Iman, on the other hand, informed a journalist in 2014: “Bowie is just a persona. He’s a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is a man I met.” And the more I thought about Iman and David, the more my perspective on that second of the final four Visconti albums shifted, for at the authentic heart of Reality one finds a series of songs that seem to speak not of and about the second-level personae of Jones’ persona “Bowie” but of and about the good luck and the good life, post-good match with good wife, of David Jones. “Hold me tight,” David opens one song, titled “Days”:
Hold me tight
Keep me cool
Don’t know what to do
Do I need a friend?
Well, I need one now
All the days of my life
All the days of my life
All the days I owe you
All I’ve done
I’ve done for me
All you gave
You gave for free
I gave nothing in return
And there’s little left of me
All the days of my life
All the days of my life
All the days I owe you
In red-eyed pain I’m knocking on your door again
My crazy brain in tangles
Pleading for your gentle voice
Those storms keep pounding through my head and heart
I pray you’ll soothe my sorry soul.
Another intensely personal reflection-on-the-days-of-becoming piece is Reality’s The Loneliest Guy, in which our Davids – Bowie and Jones – nakedly acknowledge how unlikely it was that they should have become what they did: “the luckiest guy, not the loneliest guy, in the world.” “Not me,” they assert, relieved that somewhere along the line they somehow escaped the lonely fate (we know who’s a junkie…) of Major Tom. (Nota bene: the difference between the frailty of that “not me” on the studio version and the gutsy confidence of Bowie’s “NOT ME!” as delivered on the A Reality Tour live album is palpable, as is the difference between both of those vocalizations and Jones’ staunch determination to avoid expressing anything vocally through performance or interview (the ultimate “NOT ME”) even (or especially) after his return to being a recording artist with The Next Day.
In our short, co-hosted closing segment of the Bowie Retrospective, we play and discuss those beautifully real songs from Reality Brooke talks about a song called “Paris in the Rain” that she composed for and about David at an early stage in her music career, inventing for the singer and his first love Hermione an alternative happy ending to that through which lonely-guy David is caught in the process of working in David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione”: “I care for no one else but you, I tear my soul to cease the pain.” On the basis of the little that we know of “Bowie’s” family life in those final years (and we know very little about his family life precisely because he was prioritizing it above “David Bowie’s” public life), it seems to me that – with Iman, then also Lexi (and also step-son-to-Iman Duncan) – David achieved for himself something akin to the ending with which Brooke in fiction graced him and Brooke in fact graced me. “Love and gratitude,” wrote Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid. “Nothing else matters,” spoke David Robert Jones.
I am grateful, David Robert Jones, that I never got to see David Bowie. I am grateful, Davids, that that same Reality tour heart-attack that stopped me from seeing you in Scotland also persuaded you to see less of us and more of them, your family, from thereon out. As much as or more than from your music, it is from such moves that we artists have most to learn. At the same time, I am grateful that you ultimately never stopped thinking music mattered (after all, David Jones, you were David Bowie!), and that you did in fact return to us on record (though neither in person nor even in interview, Visconti becoming from The Next Day until – and beyond – your last day your “voice on earth”) for those last three years. Thank you. For all of that, thank you.
“I can’t give everything away,” Jones had Bowie cryptically inform us.
It is astonishing, David, that you somehow pulled off both bequeathing us your perfect “parting gift” BlackStar whilst also so seldom parting from your family. It is astonishing, David, that you somehow managed to both reassure us that “Bowie” lives on (and will always live on) since we ourselves got to see you triumphantly ascend (station to station, into that wardrobe) beyond our mortal realm, whilst also dying, unbeknownst to us, surrounded by your family. It is astonishing. You were astonishing. Thank you.
Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Those are the final two paragraphs from Middlemarch by George Eliot. It is astonishing how much they apply to David Jones (the fact that Dorothea’s gender is “wrong” is all the more apt, given that we are talking about Bowie): ultimately, you too strove to ensure – by the end – that your finely touched spirit wrought fine – not widely visible – issues; you too – in the end – lived faithfully a hidden life, ensuring – despite illness – that things were not so ill with those within and around the channel in which you spent yourself that they might otherwise have been; and yet – to the end – you were somehow always also David Bowie, that modern musical artist whose impact on humanity could plausibly be said to be greater than and deeper than that of any other, a rock god who – as acknowledged and encouraged even by The Vatican’s cultural minister, Cardinal Gianfranco – is now universally mourned. How on earth did you manage it, David? Truly, it is astonishing. Thank you.
“No words right now,” I posted on that harrowing Monday morning one month ago, “but RIP and thank you.”
By 5:15am, the angels had gone, but words of my own had come. They were the first of very many. They were these:
“ Excepting family (and not even excepting my other hero, that other heathen, George Eliot), no single being has affected – and none ever shall affect – the course of my life and the nature of my being so forcefully. RIP David Bowie”
RIP David Jones.
Love and gratitude.
Simon Calder is a British university lecturer, music writer, music radio host, and musician based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife Brooke Calder. Their Minneapolis music radio show "Back to the City: MPLS Music Conversation with the Calders" streams on sianetradio.com at 4pm CST on Saturdays, with past episodes archived on MixCloud. The Bowie Retrospective episode, feat. guests including Venus DeMars, streams on sianetradio.com from 4-7pm CST on Saturday February 20th.