I don’t remember how old I was when my older sister (who introduced me to so much music) played “A Space Oddity” for me. I know I was in elementary school — Maybe fourth grade? — and spent many an after-school afternoon listening to it obsessively on headphones. I was blown away by it — that a rock song could sound like that, that someone would even think of telling that story, that it was so beautiful.
But mostly what hit me was the terror, sadness, and desperation that Bowie got into his voice as he sang “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” as his astronaut charge floated away to his death. He could have done the song without the raw pain and it still would have been remarkable, a classic. But he didn’t, and that’s what pushes it into being a work of genius.
David Bowie was often kidding. He understood image and costume and social constructs better than most of us ever will, and he used them to wonderfully, gloriously kid the word. But he knew that constant kidding can be a crutch, a way to hydroplane through existence without ever letting it touch you properly. And so he ripped the joking away as he pleased or felt it was necessary in his work. And he sang “Under Pressure” in a way that makes jaded teengers stop and reassess the process of walling up their hearts.
His joyous strangeness and his playfulness and his marvelously huge brain and the richness of his voice and his winks to the crowd all made him wonderful. But it’s those moments of unadorned sincerity that make his loss such a soul-punch.
It is such a terrible risk to be sincere, to be open about what you love and believe at your core, because it’s opening yourself up to mockery. It’s a map to where people can stick the knives in.
I think we love David Bowie so hard because he made all that incredible music while being exactly who he felt like being at any given moment and truly, spectacularly not giving a fuck about whether it opened him up to public ridicule. In addition to becoming a beacon of hope for the smart kids and the weird kids and the gay and bi kids, an absolute proof that we, too, could be as happy, creative, and sexy as he wanted, it made him invulnerable. What he did with those moments of agonizing sincerity was a lot like being out: If you love it with all your heart and say it truthfully, no one’s sniping can reach you.
I think that’s why so many of us were shocked to hear that he could die. He was so very much himself and so impervious to mockery — so eighteen steps ahead of it — that it simply doesn’t make sense that he’s gone. It’s like trying to make sense of the news that one of the compass points won’t be there anymore, or the color yellow. Or glitter.
“Lazarus” would be astonishing in any context, but knowing that it was made for his fans by a man who knew he was dying makes it something else again.
He’s not leaving, it says, he’s just ducking in for a quick change. It’s a sincere message about death with a wink in there — It might be scary and sad for a bit, but it’s not necessarily an end. I just might be back, and in a new persona that will blow your mind. Again.
I think David Bowie he saw himself as someone (or something) that was poured into a human frame to play for a while, to feel every aspect of the world as deeply as he could, and to constantly bring forth new wonders from his incredible brain and heart.
I think a lot of the winks and nudges in his work are hints that we could be doing the same in our own ways, that we could all be having a lot more fun with this life-on-Earth thing.
Like all of David Bowie’s ideas, I think they’re at least worth a listen.