David Bowie’s Spaceship Always Knew Which Way To GoPosted: January 11, 2016
Art by Dave McCaig
It was a shock to the world when we heard late last night that David Bowie had passed away from cancer at the age of 69. Not just because he had kept his 18-month battle completely hidden, or because he had just released a new album and launched an Off-Broadway musical. What was shocking about the death of Bowie was that he always seemed like an honest-to-God immortal, a constant in pop culture over the span of several generations. And while Bowie himself might be gone, there’s no doubt he’ll continue to be a constant for generations to come.
To be honest, my association with David Bowie has always been a little bit distant. I was born in ‘89, and I was never a huge music person, so I never connected with his art in-depth as so many others did. But I still remember the weekends in high school, helping my uncle with renovating his house, when we would have classic rock on the radio all day. When Bowie came on, there was no mistaking it. “Space Oddity” in particular always struck me hard, like a beautifully melancholy lost transmission coming through a wormhole. There was something singular and soulful and dazzling about his music (what I knew of it) that always left an impression, even just a subconscious one.
But while I enjoyed the music I knew there was much that I didn’t. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Bowie’s film work either; just The Prestige and Zoolander unfortunately, while everything else wound up on the To-Do list. As for his fearless attitudes about style, sexuality and identity, I admire the hell out of them but they didn’t speak to anything within me beyond a certain sense of empathy for those they probably did. And yet, waking up this morning to a Bowie-less world, I found myself haunted. Sitting down at my computer I of course queued up Bowie on Spotify, but soon found it difficult to focus on what was in front of me. I felt like I wasn’t giving Bowie enough of an homage, that playing the songs I already knew didn’t make up for my neglect to the rest of his astounding body of work. That was the core of that haunted feeling: I hadn’t appreciated David Bowie enough and now he was gone. I felt compelled to make amends for that mistake.
To do so, I watched The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie’s acting debut directed by Nicholas Roeg. On some level it was exactly the sort of challenging, asymmetrical storytelling you’d expect (and that I don’t tend to care for). But on another level, it also seems to be a great ode to David Bowie, and how he viewed the world. I’ve read many tributes today speaking of how Bowie was an icon of weirdness, how he refused to accept one easy label or identity, how he was in many ways the ultimate proud outsider of the human race. And all of that is exemplified greatly in The Man Who Fell To Earth. In Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton (and to a lesser extent, Rip Torn’s Nathan Bryce), we see a “man” tormented by the banality of human life and the struggle to hold onto his true nature. It is challenging and asymmetrical, for sure, and something that demands more consideration than I can muster in one sitting… but then, so was Bowie. And maybe never before has a film so perfectly encapsulated its lead than this one.
Even as I write this, I wonder why this death has hit me the way it did, given my lack of deep appreciation of Bowie’s work. And all I can think of is this: it is so rare to find someone who was truly original, to witness an artist that transcends everything around them, that even casual observers can’t help but be affected by. That was David Bowie. And while I regret not knowing his art better before, I will damn sure get to know his art now.