I went to bed Sunday night thinking through the blog post I was going to write about David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar, released the day David Bowie turned 69. Here was an adventurous, challenging, and rewarding body of work from a man who had nothing left to prove — which is exactly why I was so blown away by the album and the eerie videos that Bowie had been dropping on us in recent days and weeks.
After I had posted a video of his single “Lazarus” on my Facebook wall January 8, a chorus of Facebook friends weighed in with their reactions, ranging from fascination to repulsion. I was inspired: if David Bowie could continue pushing boundaries and sparking conversations at retirement age, I should be challenging myself to grow and create.
The next morning, I learned he was dead.
Realizing now that Blackstar was a parting gesture from a man who had been battling cancer inspires me even more. Not only did he continue creating art up to his last days, but he drew upon his mortality, as is evident in the recently released song and video, “Lazarus,” in which Bowie is seen levitating over a hospital bed. He sings,
Look up here, I’m in heaven I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Instead of blogging about Blackstar this morning, I talked with my wife, Jan, and daughter, Marion, about Bowie and his music. We remembered how on Christmas Eve 2014, we visited the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This was a time of creative growth and new possibilities for us. Jan was writing her first novel. Marion was coming into her own as an actress, writer, and musician. I had launched my own business several months earlier and started acting in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Visiting a retrospective on the career of such a creative genius as Bowie felt right. I figured we would see some memorable art and stroll down memory lane with his music for an hour or two before heading back home for some hot chocolate and a Christmas movie.
We ended up being immersed for hours.
The exhibit was more than a career retrospective. It was a celebration of creativity. Many lessons revealed themselves among the rich collection of songs, costumes, artwork, and video, but the one that stays with me is how artists draw upon everything around them, past and present, the popular and the obscure, to create.
Rediscovering a video for “Space Oddity” in the exhibit taught me how artists can draw upon contemporary culture to create something deeply personal, as Bowie did by using our fascination with space exploration to create art that expresses individual longing and loneliness. I have heard “Space Oddity” countless times, but watching a video of the song in a dark corner of the exhibit drew me into a different world — where I could be with Major Tom but somehow never help him.
I learned how Bowie slyly drew upon the past to generate curiosity. A video clip of him singing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979 at first seemed eccentric, with Bowie wearing a large, boxy cardboard tuxedo so awkwardly constructed he had to be carried to the microphone.
He was also accompanied by a strange-looking back-up singer dressed in heavy makeup and a belted kimono. By 1979, “The Man Who Sold the World” was already an established rock classic. Why was he singing the song dressed in such weird garb, and who was the artist singing with him? Was he tired of singing the same song and wanted to mix things up a bit?
But the caption alongside the video display explained that Bowie’s attire was inspired by costumes from a 1923 German production of the Dadaist play “Gas Heart.”
The back-up singer was a German singer, Klaus Nomi. As it turned out, by the time David Bowie appeared on SNL in 1979, he had been profoundly inspired by a productive period of recording in Berlin, a time during which he recorded Low, Heroes, and Lodger, and also recovered from drug addiction. Through the SNL performance, he was giving us clues about his life, and paying homage to a place and culture where he had experienced a creative renewal, but leaving it up to us to figure it out.
I left “David Bowie Is” determined to return to writing short stories and poems, which I had once done with great passion. David Bowie created great art and some misfires, too, but he never stopped drawing upon his life to create. I was challenged to do the same. Months later I had written one new poem and was working on two short stories with the encouragement of Jan and Marion. Thank you, David Bowie.
As Jan, Marion, and I were reflecting on Bowie this morning, Marion commented, “David Bowie is one of those people who you think will never die, you know?”
She is right. David Bowie will never die.