So much has been and will be written about David Bowie now that he has died. I’m reading it all in the hope that I will get to know even more about the man who sang back in 2013 about “the moment you know, you know, you know” in the song Where Are We Now. I have pondered that line over and over, and each time I hear it, my feeling is that he was talking about that moment when you know that you are mortal; that moment when every fiber of your being knows that you are aware of that knowledge—that one day your life will end. That is how I interpreted the song, as an elegy for the fragility, the transience, the unfathomable ending of life, and for the knowledge that time cannot be stopped and that there is nothing we can do to prevent death. It comes to us all. It could have been that he was growing older, as we all are, and that he had regrets. Thoughts of our own mortality are not unnatural. We go on living all the same, in our paradoxical lives where we discuss in earnest what type of couch we may buy tomorrow at the same time that we realize that it does not really matter in the long run what type of couch we buy. But we do it anyway. Living each day to its fullest requires that we understand that mortality is our ultimate outcome. What makes Bowie exceptional is that he pursued those thoughts as far as he was able. He explored the idea of mortality and of dying. He visualized death. You cannot hear and watch Blackstar and not be totally undone by it, by its bravery, feelings, anxiety, fear, imagery, and darkness. He was afraid, he was vulnerable, and he shared that. He did not shy away from a difficult, almost taboo subject. But he did it his way, through his art, and it was genuine and heartfelt.
I could not then, and cannot now, listen to Where Are We Now without crying. Because even then, it seems to me that Bowie was exploring the juxtaposition of life and death in daily life.
‘As long as there's sun
As long as there's sun
As long as there's rain
As long as there's rain
As long as there's fire
As long as there's fire
As long as there's me
As long as there's you’.
Life was worth living because the sun shone, the rain fell, the fire burned, and loved ones were in his life. As long as there was a spark of life in him, and love between him and others, there was a reason to go on, to fight (illness perhaps), to create, to be. He did not want to die. I want to think that if anyone will be able to tell us what the afterlife will be like, it will be him. After all, he told us what it was like to know that he was dying through his music and his lyrics. I am not sure how he will manage to let us know about the new world he has come to, just that I think he will.
David Bowie was my first meeting with the strange, the exceptional, the out-of-the ordinary, and the other-worldly. There was a seriousness about every piece of art he created. He believed in his art and in his ability to communicate his visions to us. Hearing him for the first time when I was a teenager made me feel less alone, less alienated, and less strange than I normally felt at that time. I felt like I ‘fit’ when I heard his music. I am thankful that I met his world when I did, because I got to experience some strange and wonderful rides through that world—Space Oddity, Ashes to Ashes, Heroes, TVC15, Changes, and Rebel Rebel, to name just a few of my favorites songs. Who else could write a song (Space Oddity) about a spaceman trapped in outer space with no hope of return, and get you to feel for that character? It did not matter whether that character was literal or figurative; you felt for him all the same. Bowie was the perfect choice for the main character in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, a film that drew me in and would not let me go for a long time afterward. I dragged my sister and a few of my friends to that film, and ended up being the only one who liked it and who wanted to discuss it afterward. I wanted to share the sorrow I felt about his alien character not being able to return to his home where his family waits for him, a dying planet without water. As a young adult starting out on the long journey that is life, it was a terrible feeling to contemplate that he would never return to them. That thought was hard to bear. David Bowie seemed to understand the dualities of human existence, love and lack of love (isolation/alienation), joining the party and standing outside looking in, joy and sorrow, strength and frailty, health and sickness, and in that sense he was very much like his character in The Man Who Fell to Earth. But unlike Mr. Newton in that film, I believe that he has now returned home.