I discussed my feelings and memories of David Bowie the morning his death was announced, tersely. But since then I’ve been struck by just how intense and widespread the outpouring of grief and memory has been. Much more than I would have expected – and from a much broader range of people that I would have imagined. Others I’ve asked seem to have the same sense: a much more sustained and widespread impact than they expected. Now, I always try to be aware of the distorting prism of social media. In a way that is very unlike the case thirty years ago or even ten years ago, we all live awash in the inner experiences, the impulsive self-expressions of our friends and mere acquaintances. Yet, even in that context, even figuring in that difference, something seems different. So I’ve been asking myself why.
One small aspect of this is that this was for seemingly everyone unexpected. But beyond that, part of Bowie’s image of diaphanous ever-youth and ever-vigor just seems hard to connect, reconcile or accept with death, post-65 from a disease that is a ravage of age.
Still, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. So is it just the pure quality of the music? The constant reinvention?
This isn’t any full answer. But what I have thought a lot about in the last few days is the way Bowie seemed to embody a certain aspect of “the 60s”, albeit it one that really happened in the 1970s, which was his golden decade. This mid-late 20th century transformation, which is encrusted in so much cliche and mawk, had two broad components: one that was conventionally political and generally left, and a second which was broadly liberationist, sexual, a dream of being unchained from history, identity, confinement, open to a free field of self-expression and self-invention. It was out of this milieu and set of beliefs that much of the gay liberation movement emerged, a certain phase of women’s liberation, racial identity movements and much else.
If the radical economic politics that many associate with the 60s never panned out, this ethic of individual liberation and expression continued to pulse through our culture for decades and in some ways is flowering in new and triumphant ways even today, whether at the Supreme Court, at the City Clerks office or on boutique television shows on Showtime.
Now, these explosions, movements are all political in their way – but in meaningfully different ways. Some of the most interesting social commentary I’ve seen over the years has posited that this liberationist sensibility actually survived the tumult of the 60s and 70s to emerge as a cult of the self and freedom, which could be picked up, repackaged into simple consumerism. And a lot of what we see as the anti-solidarity, even right-leaning politics of late 20th century and early 21st century culture. We can certainly see shades of this in the every-present hyper sexualization of youth. Miley Cyrus, bent over and barely dressed, hungry and demanding on stage with Robin Thicke, is certainly a child of Bowie, though whether a true descendent or a Frankenstein’s monster, I’ll leave to others to decide.
But Bowie was far too protean to be contained by any of these movements and the identities they fashioned and embraced. Bowie was a bisexual man who clearly gravitated toward longterm relationships with women. Elton John was and is a gay man who for whatever mix of and many reasons couldn’t or wouldn’t quite fully embrace that identity publicly until relatively late in life. Homoeroticism was inextricable for Bowie’s music from almost the very beginning, but often expressed as a form of extremity or deviance, a total indifference to convention, society weighed against desire and liberation. “Deviance” is a loaded and easy to misconstrue word in this context. But in his songs homosexuality is less an identity as a range of human experience. He was not only a collaborator but a fellow-traveler of Lou Reed in this way.
Got laid by a young bordello
I was vaguely half asleep
For which my reputation swept back home in drag
And the moral of this magic spell
Negotiates my hide
When God did take my logic for a ride
He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame
He said “You’ll never go down to the Gods again”
(Turn around,go back!)
He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said “Do it again, do it again”
(Turn around,go back!)
His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil’s love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said “Do it again, do it again”
(Turn around, go back!)
I spoke about this this afternoon to a close friend who knew a number of these people up very close and this person had a rather different take: Bowie as a very conventional, even conservative English man of his generation, albeit one with greater appetites and a peerless showman. I will simply put that out there as a contrary view, I have no knowledge or experience to properly litigate. Perhaps it completes the picture rather than contradicts it. But I do know that he does seem like a thread stringing so many of these themes together, going back decades. As I was writing this I was reminded that Lady Gaga began as a rock burlesque performance art review with her and a sidekick named Lady Stardust – one name inspired by Freddie Mercury and a second by Bowie.
I don’t know just why people seem so affected by Bowie’s passing, I don’t even know whether it’s really ‘more’ or whether that’s just illusion. But beyond being a still underrated lyricist, I think Bowie remains for the freaks and the deviants (meant in the good way) as well as the generally still proper and self-confined an avatar of liberation, of freedom, something that is a profound current in our culture.