run bowie.thoughts

I was ready on Monday to hit the ground running, but then I found out that David Bowie was dead.

It’s been a bad few months for rock music. Lemmy’s dead. Rush retired. And now Bowie, who it often seemed wasn’t even really human, has reminded us that he was, after all, underneath the ethereal affect and the cartoon characters and the weirdness, as tragically mortal as the rest of us.

It feels weird to feel so crushed by a loss like this because the amount of Bowie’s music that I’ve listened to is embarassingly small. I’ve heard most of the hits and the entirety of Ziggy Stardust but looking through the man’s 50-year discography I’m struck by the weight of it all and how little I’ve actually seen. My brother, Stewart, was always the hardcore fan, I was a looky-loo at best.

So, like I said, it feels weird that hearing about Bowie’s death took the wind so utterly out of me. And it only felt weirder when I saw the outpourings of grief from others in my social circle. It’s always strange to deal with the creeping sensation that you somehow don’t have a right to your feelings, that you came by your grief or joy or whatever dishonestly. Everyone else had stories of how Bowie had changed and impacted their life and their work and, well, everything, and it made me think about what Bowie had meant to me- because he definitely meant something, to feel this loss so acutely.

I think a lot of it was that, like most people, I was just glad he was around. He’d show his face in weird places, whether it was as a leather-clad goblin king or a strange digital god from the mind of David Cage or as an uncommonly creative, inventive musician, it was just good to know he was there, still: a soft-spoken jester ready to remind us that it was OK to be weird and goofy and that being able to laugh at yourself didn’t diminish you. Neil Gaiman once said something to the effect of ‘funny is not the opposite of serious’, and I think David Bowie embodied that sentiment more than almost any other person I can think of. It was just such a relief to know that the coolest person in the world was a huge geek, like the rest of us.

But there was something else, too, at the end of it. My favourite David Bowie song was one of the first I heard- a track off a Best Of compilation that my brother owned. The song was “Heroes”. When I first heard the album, I didn’t care much for most of the songs- they were a little too weird, which was something that I was still having a hard time admitting that I enjoyed (despite a burgeoning love for They Might Be Giants, which I was developing at the same time). I liked Under Pressure, because I liked Queen, and I liked Modern Love, and Ziggy Stardust, but everything else was lost on my young mind- save for “Heroes”.

I still don’t know what exactly it was that lodged in my brain about “Heroes”. I know I loved that Bowie, by the end, was damn near screaming. As a child I thought that it was because he was so overcome by the beauty of the lyrics that he couldn’t help himself, but Stew informed me recently that it was actually because the microphone was moved further and further back between verses, forcing Bowie to yell just to be heard. There’s something perfect about that, given that the song has a sort of irony about it. The quotation marks around “Heroes”? Those are part of the title. In spite of the grandness of the lyrics, we can only ever be quote-unquote heroes, just for one day. I guess there’s something about that sentiment that gets to me.

As I got older and struggled with anxiety, “Heroes” continued to be a song that I’d come back to whenever things got bad. It was like a little anthem I could hang on to. Something to remind me that I didn’t have to fix everything at once. To remind me that things were alright. That we could beat them, just for one day. That we could be heroes, just for one day. Or, ‘heroes’, at least. That feeling, that we could be grand, that we could be brave and beautiful and soaring and still not need to take ourselves too seriously, that we could call ourselves heroes and wink at a camera that isn’t there- something about that really resonated, I guess. And also the sense of inevitability- though nothing will drive them away, that we can beat them, just for one day. Loneliness, anxiety, alienation- feelings that Bowie spent a lot of time writing about- they’re like that. They never really go away, you just kind of learn to manage them. You beat them, but just for one day. “Heroes” really helped me, when things got grim.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I suppose I wanted to make sense of it all. Losing Bowie was like a night with a new moon, the strange feeling you get when you look up and realize that the sky is a little emptier, except the feeling is never going to go away. It’s like going back to your childhood home and realizing they’ve cut down the trees you used to climb on. Like seeing a hole torn in the street where a building used to be. You understood in an abstract sense that everything is impermanent, but you didn’t expect to have to deal with it so soon. You just kind of figured they’d always be there.

Like I said, I don’t know what I’m trying to say. All I know is that David Bowie is dead, and I listened to “Heroes” that night, and I cried like I haven’t cried in a while. The kind of angry, full-throated sobs that take over when you’re reminded with a flourish that the world isn’t fair, that nothing lasts, that we can be heroes- but just for one day.

But in that one, 69-year-day, Bowie gave us Ziggy Stardust, and Jareth, and the best on-screen portrayal of Nikola Tesla, and Under Pressure, and a hilarious video of him and Mick Jagger singing “Dancing in the Streets”, which never fails to brighten my day. And he gave us kind words and grand dreams and music that’s still not quite like anything else, right up to the goddamn end with Blackstar. And he made a promise that everyone, myself included, has been feeling the weight of more intensely than ever, lately- “You’re not broken. You’re not alone”. And he gave us “Heroes”. And though nothing will keep us together, we can beat them, forever and ever.

And while it’s sad that we have to admit that at the end of the day, Bowie wasn’t the immortal alien rock god from beyond the edge of space that we all wanted him to be, there’s a promise there too. Because if Bowie was one of us, then we can all be Bowie, too. We can create, and laugh, and bring a little more light into the world than was there when we got here. Ziggy played guitar, and we can too.

So thanks, Bowie. Thanks for everything. Thanks for making my life, all of our lives, a little brighter, a little weirder, a little sillier and, yeah, a little easier. Thanks for leaving behind music that’ll fill our heads with dreams of spacemen, and love, and “heroes”. Thanks for touching the lives of my friends and making their lives make a little more sense. And thanks for showing me how to beat Them- whoever They are- just for one day. It won’t be the same without you. Stay safe out there.

See you, Starman,