He went out well. Two albums in three years, a broadway play, and a major art retrospective. As I write this, I hear Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.” I’m rethinking what it means to burn out. To burn with passion is good. When we create, the fire illuminates. Bowie burned on his way out. Neil wrote of “burning out” as the story of Johnny Rotten (who actually lives well today), Elvis, Janis, Jimi, Morrison even. But Bowie burned, perhaps edging up against self-destruction at certain points, but largely like a sun, a life-giving force to the “freaks” on society’s fringe, those who may have needed to be reminded that they were pretty, but less often needed reminders that they were driving their mothers and fathers insane.
My sister Josslyn wrote today that Bowie was a bridge between my father’s love of jazz and Nina Simone and the music we loved growing up. My recollection is totally different. I remember listening over and over to “Wild is the Wind” in my bedroom. I don’t know what it was about it. I was probably twelve wanting to love, be loved and leave the oppression of sticking out in a very white city where I was betrayed by my shade and kink, then completely outed by my dad’s extravagance. And I’d definitely internalized some of the messages I was a wild creature. It’s somewhere in the vulnerability in Bowie’s voice when he says, “Don’t you know you’re life itself.” The “itself” lands alone, over an implied change to the V dominant seventh chord, the chord that begs to resolve back to the root, yet the previous minor IV chord has stopped ringing. The emptiness in which he holds that awkward word kills me. He does bring us back to the tonic, a minor ninth — that ninth hinting at hope by surpassing the octave by just a step. It’s that aloneness that Bowie allowed us to understand wasn’t so unique, that others share your longing, your estrangement from community norms. And in that understanding, you could step ahead.
I remember my father coming into my room and asking, “Why are you listening to that white boy sing that song?” He fought back with Nina Simone’s version, to which I must now say I’ve listened at least as many times as Bowie’s. But then it was a dismissal of my interests and probably a reaction based on his insecurity around my rejecting his “blackness” by my embrace of my white rockstars — save Jimi. Ultimately, I must agree with my sister that the cross-cultural elements of Bowie’s music did create a bridge between my father and I. I remember him apologizing fairly soon after his initial diss. He later loved that Bowie and Iman were a couple. But it was uncomfortable. Bowie started a fight. But we both learned and gained something in the end.
Then again, that uncomfortable feeling was part of Bowie’s genius. Over and over he pushed boundaries — remember the “man skirt?” — then world caught up, at least sort of. And maybe that was it, too. He created space for acceptance or alternative culture (beyond that icky word “tolerance”) even if the elements of it weren’t embraced or adopted by mainstream culture. That ability to create space for acceptance of “difference” however is probably why he ultimately was so embraced and beloved by the mainstream. Of course it was all helped by a clearly sweet core that you could see in so many of his activities that had little to do with the Avant-garde (Bing Crosby, Jim Henson, “The Snowman…”).
The songs that grabbed me this morning were “Five Years” and “Lazarus.” Impending death at the beginning of his career and transcending at the end. All the while, Bowie radiates as a powerful sun, burning beauty into us, illuminating wondrous ways to look at the world, its inhabitants and its transcendentals.