Perhaps it is such that the dead are milestones for the living. Rock star, actor, human transformer, and perhaps a man who really did fall to Earth, David Bowie died on Monday. The news hit me hard and in ways that are multifaceted. There is the stunning loss of his truly unique and nearly indescribable talent. There is sorrow for his family. And finally there was sorrow for myself. The heroes of my youth are dying off, which means that I, too, am on that road toward dying off.
Regardless of our schemes, accomplishments and machinations in life, the road we take on this planet, as varied as we are as individuals, all ends up at the same place.
The first record album I purchased was by the Doobie Brothers. The first record album I stole (from my sister) was by David Bowie.
My first memorable loss of someone I’d never met but had significantly impacted my life was when John Lennon was murdered outside his apartment in New York City in 1980. I had just turned 18 and didn’t fully comprehend what had happened, why or how. All I knew was that the world had changed. My long-hoped-for wish of a Beatles reunion had ended forever.
Since then, I have stood outside of that apartment building, across from Central Park and only steps away from the Strawberry Fields memorial built in the park in Lennon’s memory, and I still don’t understand it. But that was only two years after I lost my Dad, and I was acutely aware that loss was very much part of life, whether understood or not.
The death of Johnny Carson had a significant impact. I grew up watching him and, even as an adult, somehow I thought that he was immortal. I could never imagine a world without Johnny Carson in it. But that world came on January 23, 2005.
In those years before and since, so many people have left us. Both of my parents are gone. And now David Bowie is gone.
I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
— “Changes” by David Bowie, Hunky Dory, 1971
“Changes,” a song released by Bowie 45 years ago, still resonates with me today. And lately I’ve done a lot of wondering what I’ve been waiting for. I’m 53 years old, and the time for some of the things I had imagined as a teenager has passed. Life is really fairly simple, especially for those of us who won the genetic lottery by being born in a place where we really haven’t had much to worry about, beyond the also-then-incomprehensible drills in elementary school back in the 1960s, where an ominous alarm would sound in the school, our teacher would usher us into the hallway with instructions that we should cover our heads with our arms and, if the drill had been real, we should never, ever look into the bright flash of the exploding nuclear weapon.
I’m not sure why anyone would nuke Worthington, Minnesota, and it seems others have questioned that as well. The signs for fallout shelters have long since come down.
And it was about that time that Bowie appeared on the global stage with the 1969 release of “Space Oddity” — a man flies into space and learns he’ll never return. The song was sad but somehow hopeful. With all of the doom of that era, Bowie was singing about humanity venturing on, despite the hazards and the risks.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947. Last Friday, he celebrated his 69th birthday, along with the release of his latest album, entitled, “Blackstar.” There is no possible way to sum up his career and impact on music and the arts in general. He was a rocker, a techno-pop star, an actor, painter, and an alien with spiders from Mars, all of whom, yet as Bowie himself, sang “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby during a television Christmas special in 1977. You can’t sum all of that up because there is no sum … it’s nearly infinite. Much like Lennon or Carson. Or our parents. Infinite.
He left behind his wife of 23 years and two children.
Perhaps the best words written about Bowie were sent out via Twitter the day before he died:
If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.
— Dean Podestá @JeSuisDean
Each morning, just after 8 or so, an elderly gentleman wearing a newsboy cap walks past my door. If we see each other, he’ll walk out of his way to come close to say “good morning” and make a comment about the weather or something. Somehow our short exchange always ends with a chuckle. He probably doesn’t know who David Bowie was; at least he didn’t mention his passing in our brief conversation only moments before I typed these words. But I know, like all of us, he has experienced his share of loss and perhaps more. He is always walking alone.
This morning, after a brief chat, he walked on and I walked in, both of us laughing. Life changes, ends, and life goes on. I’m pretty sure that’s how it is supposed to be. I’m glad I somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie. I’m happy I’ve managed to exist at the same time as the elderly gentleman in the newsboy cap. Life is simple. We are each on our own road but those roads cross and there’s nothing to waste time waiting for. Perhaps soon I’ll figure that out.
Oh, look out you rock ’n’ rollers
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
— “Changes” by David Bowie, Hunky Dory, 1971
Goodbye and Godspeed, David Bowie. Thank you for the music, the occasional shock here and there, and for being a man who fell to this Earth.