It’s almost a week on from David Bowie’s death and I’m still getting over it. In that, I’m no different from millions of fans across the world, all coming to terms with the shock announcement on Monday of his death from cancer, aged 69. I shouldn’t be surprised he died at 69 (another great English creative artist of similar background Alan Rickman passed away at the same age later in the week), but it seemed David Bowie always had an ageless quality about him that seemed to defy the ravages of time.
Despite having cancer for 18 months (a fact miraculously held from the media, increasing the shock of his eventual death), he kept busy to the last. His 25th and final studio album Black Star was released only a couple of days before his death. The title song has got under my skin and I’m playing it on background as I write these words. The Pitchfork review is particularly poignant. “David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us,” it begins, talking about him as a Lazarus (the title of one of the songs on the album) who constantly rises in different guises.
The timing of the album is sure to make it one of his best-ever selling and certainly it’s the most intriguing of his 21st century work, the best since Heathen in 2002. It’s also the only one not to feature a cover photo of Bowie himself. In astronomy a black star is the last phase of the life of a star while it may also refer to a cancer lesion. Whatever the meaning, it is a fitting farewell for a great artist.
Bowie was (and still is) my favourite musical artist and has been a part of my life for almost 40 years. In 2012 I used the occasion of Bowie’s 65th birthday to write about how he entered my life, through the musical influence of older cousins. Of course, it is the astonishing body of work from the 1970s that entranced me then and still does to this day. I was less interested in the personae of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke (and his acting career left me cold) than I was by his wonderful diverse songs with their dense and sometimes incomprehensible lyrics. Though I didn’t understand them, I knew every song he wrote from 1969 to 1983 and they constantly jostled for attention in my head.
Those songs have been amplified since his death and I find myself singing them on repeat, often close to tears, all too aware of my own mortality as well as his. In the days after Bowie’s death, a video was doing the rounds of his 1999 interview with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC, now widely hailed as predicting the impact of the Internet on music. However for me, what was most striking was when Bowie was talking about growing up and how difficult it was to find music to listen to. This seems odd today where the entire discography of the world is barely a click away but it was true for Bowie in the early 1960s and it was true for me growing up a decade and a half later. Bowie was one of those geniuses that changed all that and he adapted to the MTV age with aplomb.
I saw him live twice, and both on the same tour within four days of each other. It was after his best – the 1987 Glass Slipper tour, which critics deride as being over-produced. I was living in England at the time but got tickets to his concert at Slane Castle outside Dublin. I loved that gig and looking back on the set list I can see why. It was full of great songs from the 1970s and 80s. No wonder when I went back to England after the weekend, I jumped at the offer of a ticket to see him again the following day at a wet Maine Road in Manchester. He played exactly the same set as Slane, but I didn’t care. Singing in the rain, Bowie’s magnetic presence lit up the stage like no other.
I’m so glad I saw him live and my one regret is that I didn’t see the David Bowie Is exhibition when it came to Melbourne last year. But unlike the man himself, that can – and probably will – return.
Goodbye Lazarus, the black star man, you were a musical genius that lit up many lives.
Oh and we were gone.