As I watch the out pouring of grief, shock and mythologizing that has filled social media, I was filled with wonder. I wondered why this particular artist caused such a reaction across such a wide swath of the society.
The most evident reason is his body of work. He created a Protean persona. He was gay; he was bisexual; he was orgiastic; he was a devoted family man; he was heterosexual. His image was a costume which he wore for a while and then bored him. He would throw off styles of music as if it were an old jump suit that no longer fit him.
With each new self discovery, he took with him his brilliant intellectual understanding of the structure of culture. He read. He was visually literate. He met diverse individuals as he explored cultural relativism and diversity. He remained curious. He had a drive to learn. His hunger for knowledge never failed him.
He gave those who followed his transformations the ability to hold a more gentle grasp on their own perceived place in the world. If David could move through genres of music and yet remain relevant and admired, then perhaps I can explore beyond the rigid boundaries of what I was told I am ‘supposed’ to be.
Finally, with the last album Black Star, Bowie created two videos that shed light on the last great obscenity, the final secret shame that North Americans in particular never speak of: death. He had experienced six heart attacks recently and was ravaged for 18 months by cancer.
People viewed Lazarus and Black Star in a state of admiration filled shock. This is what it looks like to stand and openly face your own death. This is what it looks like to stand before your own relinquishing of the body you were given for a while. You walked around in it only for your allotted time.
We each of us stand with him before his end trembling, shaking. We see through his eyes that the rituals hold more connection to truth than the frivolities of ego. The spell of delusions falls away. He tells us, “You are finally left with only that which you have invested in your spirit”.
Just as Bowie explored choices in life, he explores the lack of choice at death. We die. We will cease to be. The great mystery is all that waits for us, finally.
Bowie spent his early years making explorations of his sexuality, and his addictions. Wendy Leigh’s new biographical book is based on interviews with those who knew him through out various periods of his life. She describes a man with an omnivorous, voracious, indiscriminate sexual appetite that created an orgiastic life style. His use of drugs and alcohol depleted his body. David Bowie was no paragon.
Very few others of the famous who have run howling beyond the boundaries in social behaviours which are considered correct or safe, manage to find their way to a healthier connection to self. He found his way out of addictions. He found that he could love in a coherent and intimate manner. He found that he could live his life for others: for Iman and for his daughter.
But he never lost his deep connection to self expression.
I think, finally, what has elevated him to a mythical height is that he remained true to who he was at the time. His music, his lyrics, his power was about digging deeply into the seeming, the role playing, the artifice and finding something authentic beneath it all.
We admire his talent. We admire his intelligence. We admire his truth telling from the place of chicanery. He was just so damned good at what he did. So we look at his chameleon costumed depictions of a person living a life and we see truth shining out.
Perhaps, for me the greatest testimonial to the man is that now as all of the stories are coming out of debauchery, addiction, self abuse we see how amazingly one individual can self correct.
As all of the stories come out, we see a man who was kind to others. The interviews with interviewers, with long term friends shine a light on someone who treated others with respect. The self confidence it takes to stand on stage can often lead to arrogance. David Bowie stayed focus on his mission: How do I use my talent to tell the story of a person trying to find his way in the world?
At the end, he shows us ourselves, each of us, facing death. And it moves us. It helps us, everyone of us, to prepare to leave this earth with grace and truth.
David Bowie was not a star, he was a constellation.