“People stared at the makeup on his face / They laughed at his long black hair…his animal grace / The boy in the bright blue jeans…crept up on the stage / And Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace / And he was alright, the band was all together, yes he was alright, the song went on forever / He was awful nice, really quite paradise / He sang all night long” – “Lady Stardust”
At first glance, very little about the career of David Bowie connected him to the average Joe. Nothing in his series of looks, little in his groundbreaking music, and zero of the decisions he made as a celebrity figured to have anything to do with a normal human being. Instead, he was like something from another planet, an alien that blessed homo sapiens with cosmic knowledge gleaned from travels to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, travels to which he’s now returned, having left his Earthly body behind.
His big breakthrough, remember, was a song about a man getting lost in space, and one of his most popular songs is about a Star Man waiting in the sky who’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds. How did he know of such things? From where did these images come?
It certainly makes for an apt metaphor for his outsized influence on music and celebrity culture, but it’s far more important to remember this: David Bowie was NOT, in fact, an alien, but a human being exactly like the rest of us. For all his shape-shifting, he was a man of the same Earth, carved in the same flesh and blood and memories, as you and I and everybody else we know and love.
Though it’s tempting to assume so, there’s nothing inherently, molecularly different about the people who become our favorite artists. Maybe Bowie wore (a lot) more makeup, and perhaps he had a lot more fun with the idea of a popular identity, but otherwise he was just like you and me. It’s that fact that imbues his work with its monumental importance, and burrows into and reveals the soul of what he was all about: the simple truth that literally anybody can (and should!) do their thing, so long as they stay true to their own personal vision. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, how you present yourself, or what your backstory is. That can all be up to you. Identity is fungible, personas can change as easily as costumes, and you can make it up as you go, so long as you commit to your chosen role and deliver the goods when it’s time to do so.
Bowie wasn’t a unicorn, and he wasn’t our fairy godfather. His legacy is simply that of Doing Without Fear, of Making What You Want to Make, How You Want to Make It. His is a long, cherished record of inspiration and production on the maker’s own terms. If you are an artist, a writer, a musician, an illustrator, an athlete, a set designer, an accountant, a stay-at-home dad, a lawyer, a sound engineer, a businessman, a teacher: do your thing your way, and the rest will work itself out.
And he paid it forward, too, by promoting other artists doing great work. He became a sort of curator and patron for each successive generation of music lovers in his wake. People looking for modern sounds and interesting bands could look to him for guidance. When I was coming up, that meant him guesting on TV on the Radio’s “Province” and name-dropping Arcade Fire in interviews years before they found major mainstream success. In an earlier age, he aggressively hyped the Pixies to anyone who’d listen. Back in the ‘70s, he may have been most responsible for getting Iggy Pop clean enough to record Raw Power and Lust for Life. And that’s just the rock stuff: he also promoted everything from African funk to Chinese folk, and loved classical music and traditional theater with a deep, abiding affection.
He was a seeker, but more than that he was a finder, one who loved sharing the wonderful things he found with the rest of the world. Sounds, bands, experiences: LIFE. He looked for inspiration in places others wouldn’t, and when he found that magic on the margins he used his platform to bring it to as many people as possible. He might not be your favorite artist, but he’s in the DNA of most major popular music movements of the late-20th and early-21st centuries, and this because he put himself in that position. It wasn’t an accident. He, a man, did that shit because he, a man, decided to, and the world is a better, stranger, far more interesting place due to his example.
So as you remember and celebrate David Bowie in your own way over the coming weeks and months, never forget that he was a human being just like you. Not an alien, not a monster, not a mystical creature sent here to dispense secrets contained in the dark matter at the edges of the universe. Sheathed in his own humanity until the day he died the same death the rest of us one day will, he managed to find deep troves of cosmic knowledge because he chose to look for them, following which—lucky us!—he shared them with anyone paying attention.
You, of course, are not David Bowie. There will never be another David Bowie. But there’s nothing stopping you from finding out who you yourself are, so long as you chose to do so.
Which, once you do that? Who knows what might happen?