We endow our cultural legends with abilities so mythic they can seem immune to travails of life like illness, dying and death. David Bowie is such a legend, even if he now must be referred to in the past tense.
That is how Time referred to him in their commemorative magazine edition titled: David Bowie: His Life on Earth. Fully illustrated too. Pretty legendary send off for Mister Bowie, isn't it? How many of us will have our fully illustrated careers commemorated in a special edition of Time magazine?
But we minions do have something in common with legends like David Bowie. We all die. Bowie was a singular artist, a larger than life cultural presence for decades. But he still ended up on a slab. Just like we all will. Inevitably the body gives up the ghost, that animating force, the spirit, the spark, the flame, that precious essence of our humanity – Poof! Gone gone gone away to Never Neverland.
Bowie and his family were intensely private. Only in death does the curtain lift to reveal Bowie battled liver cancer for 18 months; a fact he kept from even his best friends - now that’s private.
The curtain raises higher and we discover how Bowie fought cancer by defiantly living a normal life. He kept his hopes and dreams alive by focusing on his art. For projects that extended into the future Bowie disclosed his diagnosis when professionally necessary – to warn collaborators of the rude speed bump ahead.
David Bowie was loved by a wife, son, and daughter. They helped him, laughed, joked, and cried with him, and held him at his bedside as he died. It is all so normal sounding it reminds us of deaths in our own families.
My girlfriend introduced me to David Bowie. I liked some of his singles but his fashion sense left me cold as an outdoor hockey rink. I finally listened to one of his albums straight through: Young Americans. I was surprised how good it was. Although I was (and am) selective with Bowie's catalog, I liked how he stuck the boot in on songs like “The Gene Genie”, “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel,” and of course, "Heroes," the epic Berlin Wall love story. And I warmed to his eccentricities: songs like "China Girl" and especially"Breaking Glass":
Baby, I've been
In your room again
Don't look at the carpet,
I drew something awful on it
You're such a wonderful person
But you got problems oh-oh-oh-oh
I'll never touch you
I thought the last line was “let me touch you”, which made the song even funnier to me. It was also funny when my girlfriend became my wife and we both liked Bowie. It got unfunny when our marriage died and she became (among other things) my ex-wife. Death doesn't always have a sense of humor but you have to admit: it is very reliable.
Bowie had an ex-wife too, named Angela. She married David when she was twenty. They made headlines as the world’s first openly bisexual celebrity couple. Behind the glam fashions, Angela says the two struck a deal: Angela would help David launch his career, then he would do the same for her theatrical career. According to Angela, she not only kept up her side of the bargain, she was instrumental in helping her hubby create and market his Ziggy Stardust persona.
Then fame (Fame, Fame, Fame, Fame, Fame, what’s your name what’s your name...) came calling and the two drifted apart, shipwrecked by sex and drugs but saved by rock and roll. After ten years the marriage died and was given a public autopsy.
A court in Switzerland gave David full custody of the couple’s only child, whose legal name is Zowie (probably doesn’t rhyme with Bowie). Dad getting the kid(s) is always a sign mom is a real trainwreck - which, unfortunately, Angie was at this point in her life.
When the divorce “gag order” expired Angie penned the obligatory bitter autobiography (“come read about what a psychopathic sexual deviant horror show my ex-husband was and get the juicy details”). Zowie, meanwhile, grew into a seemingly sensible 44 year old filmmaker who today calls himself Duncan Jones. Certainly Dad could take some credit for that.
Unlike his mom, Duncan is on good terms with the legend. The morning of January 11 Duncan posted an old picture of his dad holding him, with the words: Very sorry and sad to say that it is true...” Daddy is dead. The Bowie family has a big hole in it - a hole giving outsiders access to their supremely private family.
David was married to his second wife, Iman, for almost twenty-five years. She and their daughter Lexie were also at his bedside, though not for the first time. In 2004 David had a heart attack from a clogged artery. It is said Iman nursed him back to health and raised Lexie too, who was four. Mrs. Bowie is also larger than life: a supermodel, one of the most gorgeous women on the planet. How did she become enamored of a skinny, eccentric Brit like David Bowie?
The two superstars met on a blind date. Bowie declared his attraction to Iman “was immediate and all-encompassing." Sure, him and a million other guys.
"That she would be my wife, in my head, was a done deal," he said. "I'd never gone after anything in my life with such passion in all my life. I just knew she was the one."
He was right. And along with her fabulous appeal, Iman was a good wife and mother. In 2000 she and David had a daughter: Alexandria Zahra Jones, known as "Lexi." Anyone wonder what the Bowie parenting roles were? According to Iman: "David is measured, sensible yet at the same time fun and relaxed with Lexi. I'm the disciplinarian!"
Sounds like Ziggy Stardust turned into a pretty decent dad. While the Bowie’s had homes in London and Mustique, their home base was New York. They managed a jet-set lifestyle (his music, her beauty career) and had an intact family world very few people knew about. Iman said: "I am married to David Jones. David Bowie and David Jones are two totally different people."
Some would say David Bowie is ten or twelve different people. But to keep things relatively simple, Bowie was first David Jones, a young artist concerned about being confused with (or overshadowed by) Davey Jones of Monkees fame. Indeed, Davy shot to mega stardom, leaving David Jones to a series of musical flops.
But little David Jones had Big Imagination, fueled and informed by American movies and music. David’s father gave him 45s from artists like Elvis Presley and Little Richard, whose light it up tune “Tutti Frutti” caused Bowie to say later: "I had heard God". Presley's “Hound Dog” had a similar impact. Bowie saw the visceral reaction of the audiences, and the power they gave over to the artist to influence their emotions and their bodies.
The cinema was equally powerful. David Jones, the lonely white kid from a London suburb, decided he was going to change his name to David Bowie in honor of the American David Bowie who died during the siege of the Alamo (at least as that Bowie was portrayed by Richard Widmark in the American move “The Alamo”).
Never mind that David Bowie didn’t play with knives or give his life for a cause. The name change merged Bowie’s infatuation with American music and American movies. Funny thing is, the name change seemed to ch-ch-ch-ch-change everything.
In retrospect the David Bowie persona became a platform for Bowie to experiment with characters and outrageous fashions; to present rock and roll as a cinematic event, a movie even; but with accompanying music that was at times brilliant, and often very good.
So began the career of David Bowie, which Rolling Stone aptly described:
“Ever unpredictable, the mercurial artist and fashion icon wore many guises throughout his life. Beginning life as a dissident folk-rock spaceman, he would become an androgynous, orange-haired, glam-rock alien (Ziggy Stardust), a well-dressed, blue-eyed funk maestro (the Thin White Duke), a drug-loving art rocker (the Berlin albums), a new-wave hit-maker, a hard rocker, a techno enthusiast and a jazz impressionist. His flair for theatricality won him a legion of fans.”
For decades most of Bowie’s fans stuck with him - not the various personas he developed (Ziggy Stardust was a possible exception). It was a gig that went on for five decades, influencing countless artists from Nirvana to Kanye West.
The singer kept his cancer diagnosis secret, even to some of his closest friends. But the director of Bowie’s off-Broadway play Lazarus, Ivo van Hove, said Bowie told him right away that he was battling liver cancer and would miss some rehearsals. In a radio interview van Hove remarked:
"Bowie was still writing on his deathbed... I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all. I had incredible respect for that."
On Friday, two days before his death, Iman helped her husband celebrate his 69th birthday and the release of his new album, "Blackstar." That is right: Bowie’s last album, released posthumously, is called “Blackstar.” You can’t make it up.
Bowie did not intend Blackstar to be his last album. It is in no way a summation of his career. The legend thought he had one more album in him. His longtime producer, Tony Visconti, remarked:
"He always did what he wanted to do, and he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now it is appropriate to cry.”
Which is what many fans did when Bowie’s Facebook page released this announcement: "David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family's privacy during their time of grief."
If fans and friends couldn’t get past the Bowie family picket fence, they could settle for buying his last album and going to the last off-Broadway show Bowie was involved with, Lazarus. Perhaps the covert hope that Bowie might reesurrect himself like Lazarus and appear on stage just one more time fueled the outrageously priced ticket sales ($1,000 apiece).
Sales of Bowie's aptly named Blackstar are also soaring - not unlike a super nova. Billboard reports scalpers are selling tickets to his tribute concert for over $3,000. It all goes to prove, perhaps, that the bigger you are, the bigger a buck can be made off of you.
The profits are no use to David Bowie now. Wherever he is, though, perhaps the love and appreciation of the millions for his art can somehow be absorbed by David Jones, Ziggy Stardust, The White Duke, the rock and roll legend, our friendly neighborhood super nova Lazarus.
The last words go to his biggest fan: Iman Bowie, who said that up until his very last breath David Bowie and she “were utterly complimentary and as passionate as ever,” and speaks of her widowhood thusly: “The struggle is real, but so is God.”
Postscript January 30 2016
BBC News reported that David Bowie's will provides that his estate (valued at about $100 million) be divided as follows: half to his wife Iman and the rest to his son and daughter, with some minor provisions for his personal assistant ($2 million) and a former nannie for his son ($1 million).
Bowie's will, filed in a Manhattan court under his given name, David Robert Jones, provided that his cremated ashes be scattered in a Buddhist ritual in Bali.
Also, in a previously unreleased interview for 60 Minutes made in 2003, Bowie made the following remarks:
“I was never fond of my voice. I never thought of myself as a singer. I thought I wrote songs, that is what I was best at doing. i would much preferred other people sing my songs.”
I personally find it remarkable that David Bowie, with his flair for the theatrical and the dramatic, says with a straight face that he would have preferred staying out of the limelight, but there you have it. 60 Minutes certainly caught Bowie acting engaged and relaxed during his interviews. Some of his last remarks are more consistent with the persona of Bowie as a family man:
“I'm comfortable with the idea of getting old... life has gotten better than it ever has been; i feel comfortable with it ...I'm really very thankful...I have a great wonderful domestic life...I consider myself a very lucky guy, I really do...”
Stay tuned, as it is likely more information about David Bowie is sure to come.
Time Magazine, David Bowie: His Life on Earth, an 80-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition.
John Lyons, America in the British Imagination: 1945 to the Present, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2013.