Monday started as it so often does: blearily, begrudgingly, sitting on the toilet mindless browsing websites. I noticed one American museum had posted about the rendition of The Little Drummer Boy done by David Bowie and Bing Crosby; more than three weeks after Christmas seemed a little late for that. An acquaintance had posted a full quote from Mr. Bowie on her account; I remember seeing something about a new album on another site and scrolled past, figuring that was the connection. By the third post it occurred to me what was going on – Bowie died last night, and now he’s buried in the rocks, and everybody will talk about how badly they were shocked.
Upon this realization I made haste, heading for an actual news site to confirm what I already new with certitude. Several articles relating to the passing of David Bowie were splashed across across the homepage of The Guardian. And so here we are, in a world without David Bowie.
The first thing I felt the need to do was partake in some anticipatory commiseration with my cousin, a late-twenties bohemian and a genuine Bowie lover for many of those years. The subject of the email sent was that “I heard the news today, oh boy,” the line from Young Americans that riffs on the famous Beatles line. Still processing what I had just learned, I typed a laconic message of disbelief and sadness: “What a shitty way to start a shitty day.”
In the hours and days subsequent there was reason to reflect on a couple themes. The first was the spread of this sort of news, the passing of a major celebrity in the 21st century. For me, such news always reveals itself when skimming the content of that scourge of our age, so-called “social” media – addictive as (I’m told) heroine but with none of the benefits.
The cycle for me is familiar. Out of the quotidian uselessness of these sites, which one becomes accustomed to breezing by, comes the realization of death. Then there is the dash to the news sites for facts. Then there is the deluge of remembrances, retellings, and other comments made on news networks and social networks alike. Genuine fans pour their hearts out while casual fans take pause to learn a little bit more about the departed. This exact cycle plays out several times a year; while the words for this piece were still in my head the passing of Alan Rickman became known and the whole apparatus reset itself.
For those who have grown up in a world saturated by digital media, celebrity death presented through the twenty-four-hour news cycle may very well be all they know. This thought takes me back to the summer of 2009 and the passing of Michael Jackson. I mention this only because the last celebrity death I can readily recall learning of before digital news became most prominent.
It was one of those rare moments that indelibly stamps itself on the mind. I will not soon forget the details: I was in a cab on my way back to the hotel from the Museum of American history in Washington, D.C. when the news came in over the wire. It was an unexpected development delivered in the blunt, dispassionate manner that characterizes all radio news. For better or worse, Jackson had been a part of cultural consciousness for some five decades. Whether one loved the man or hated him, or was plainly indifferent mattered little to whether you knew of him. Thus it was unsurprising that his death would be an earthshaking cultural event in itself. But what sticks in my mind even more than the initial revelation was a scene I encountered the next day. In Washington, the immediate neighbour of the Canadian Embassy is a multi-storey museum of news – the aptly-named Newseum. Parallel to the entrance is a row of display stands that daily show the front pages of newspapers from each of the fifty states. On most days this presumably illustrates the diversity of news matters by locality, but on this day only one piece of news mattered. Michael Jackson graced the cover of every single paper displayed (South Carolina being the lone exception, its people preoccupied with the sexual exploits of their then-Governor.)
But I digress. The point is that news of celebrity death circulates and reaches people at a more rapid pace and in a much different way than it did just five or six years ago – when smartphones were still in their infancy and the Internet was only starting to obliterate 20th-century media. I reserve comment on whether this particular change is good or bad, saying only that it is noticeably different.
My second reflection had to do with music and musicians as markers in our personal timelines. We all have certain songs and artists that take us back to a specific moment, day, year, or some sort of time period upon hearing them. For me, David Bowie – two songs in particular – is fittingly intertwined with my final year of undergraduate study. Fittingly, because Bowie is best known for his constantly transitory personas underlined by an enduring raffishness, while this period for me seemed the final act of a transition – from an unassured and circumspect character to the jaunty and outspoken creature now before you.
Prior to November of 2013 I had known of Bowie only as a name within the catalogue of classic rockers, the androgynous figure responsible for tunes like Ziggy Stardust and Under Pressure. Upon seeing the “David Bowie Is” exhibition during its stop in Toronto I realized he was much more than some ‘70s musician – he was an artist in every sense of the word. From the quote at the entrance (“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”) to the main exhibit, it was evident that the man was a genius. The breadth and the brilliance of his work took me totally by surprise.
Most shows that use an audio guide demand that you punch in numbers and stand listening to some monotony as you observe the works. But not this one – this was a multimedia spectacular. You put on a headset that changed what you heard as you moved around the room. The main exhibit was resplendent with costumes, art, film clips and music videos, handwritten lyrics, and myriad other artefacts. This room was reached by ascending stairs reached after the“early life” portion of the exhibit, the Making of Bowie, so to speak. But the last of these rooms before the stairs was no gallery of old photos and trumpery. This was the Starman Room, an alcove dedicated to his iconic performance of that song on Top of the Pops. Inside it you were treated to that performance on loop as you took in the magnificent costume that went with it. The inescapable catchiness of the melody and jovial theatrics on the screen made an instant fan out of me.
From that point, Starman and Life on Mars? became the soundtrack to the remainder of my time at university. Both were well-suited to late-night solitary strolls to and from the library, the former being a cosmic anthem best enjoyed alone beneath a dark and mysterious sky, and the latter giving me particular delight as it mentioned “Now the workers have struck for fame/’cause Lenin’s on sale again” – what with my being deeply immersed in Marxist ideas at the time. I also used the quote on artist intent as the mainspring for an essay, which became a minute forum for unabashedly agreeing with its accuracy, and was by all accounts well received.
One final note, patently obvious but still useful as a reminder. Prior to the departure of the Starman I had a handful of Bowie songs in my library – ten or fifteen at the most. Upon his death it made perfect sense to add to that collection. If you have ten or fifteen songs from an artist they will tend to be the more popular ones that you will have heard too many times to count, and, in occasional cases, too many times to continue listening. But if you really do enjoy these tracks then you are certain to find deeper cuts on the albums they come from, tracks that you will take even greater joy in, that will speak to you more clearly – that will affect you in ways the newer, more soulless stuff never will.