To the end, David Bowie was inscrutable.
Bowie’s death from cancer at age 69, announced early Monday morning, came as a profound shock to his millions of fans around the world. He was just days from having released his 25th studio album, Blackstar, and celebrating his 69th birthday.
Much like his iconic contributions to music, film and fashion, Bowie’s passing was designed to let the man born David Jones engage — and depart — the world on his own terms.
Blackstar is being reassessed in the context of Bowie’s death, and as the album’s producer, Tony Visconti, explained in a Facebook post, “his death was no different from his life — a work of art.”
But that life, and all of the beautiful works of art it contained, was conducted in such a way as to put the focus not on the artist, but the work itself.
Much is often made of Bowie’s abrupt shifts between characters and personas throughout his career, but what’s most notable is the changes never came at the expense of the music.
To the end, whatever guise Bowie assumed was in service of the songs — an aspect of his creativity that may be more sorely missed than the man himself. (Contrast his approach with the 21st century’s insistence on documenting every last scrap of life for public consumption.)
Over and over again in the tributes flooding social media Monday, fans spoke passionately about Bowie, and how his own life and work, both conducted with little regard for what anyone else thought or said, allowed them, in their own ways, to live lives unfettered by fear.
Feeling different or feeling as if you’re perceived as “different,” particularly in a society increasingly fixated on homogenization, can be a daunting proposition.
Bowie’s genius lay in the way he took what the mainstream culture often deemed transgressive to various degrees — fluid sexuality, drug use, aliens — and embraced it, selling it right back to the very people who would otherwise denounce it.
And indeed, it wasn’t until Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine that the penny dropped for me about Bowie. I’d been aware of his music and career — it was practically impossible not to be — but I’d never really understood why he meant what he did to so many.
But watching Haynes’ thinly veiled recounting of the birth of Bowie’s legend, as well as what it meant to be yourself, in whatever form that took, opened up a door into the man and his work in ways that reverberate within me still.
From then on, up to and through his final studio album, Blackstar, I maintained a deep affection for Bowie’s entire catalog, from his earnest folkie days through all the glam tumult and into his autumn years, rich with paranoia and eager embrace of digital technology.
Through it all, Bowie kept his own counsel, revealing nothing more than he intended.
Some of that was aided by the fact that, by 2002, he’d effectively stopped touring and focused solely on studio work. (His last DFW date was 20 years ago: Oct. 13, 1995 at what is now Gexa Energy Pavilion.)
Even Blackstar, which now is so much more profound and sad and striking than it was in its original context, just three days ago, concludes as Bowie wished, telling his audience — literally, in the case of the song’s title — I Can’t Give Everything Away: “Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent.”
A somewhat opaque sentiment at first, but one that is now so full of light and meaning and feeling.
David Bowie — inscrutable, yes, but also, utterly, utterly irreplaceable.