Weekend Edition – What would Bowie do?

charlie brown david bowie

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My daughter knew him as the Goblin King, but to countless fans around the world and across generations, he was so much more. Since Monday morning’s announcement of his passing, the Internet has been abuzz with lamentations for, tributes to, and a veritable flood of shared memories about David Bowie – the man who fell to earth.

I have spent more time than may be appropriate consuming these digital sound bytes in great gulps, trying to come to terms with the loss of a beloved artist and the feelings that loss has stirred in me. It is disorienting to feel such a genuine sense of sorrow over the death of someone I never met. Bowie was, after all and despite appearances, just another human being. But great artists change us. We are moved by their work and fooled, because we have access to their public personas, into believing in an illusion of intimacy. We weave their personalities and their art into the fabric of our lives, tying their threads to ours with inextricable knots.

For the alienated and the disenfranchised, the prosecuted and the lonely, Bowie was a kind of savior – a beautifully vulnerable yet rebellious demigod of originality and self-expression. Over the course of this past week, I have read dozens of heartfelt stories from grieving fans who relate how Bowie and his music made them feel less alone and inspired them to embrace their weirdness, despite the world telling them they were freaks.

I don’t have a story like that. I can’t lay claim to a moment of teenage epiphany while listening to Space Oddity or Ziggy Stardust. I never wrestled with issues of gender, and my tussles with sexuality were your garden variety coming-of-age affairs. And yet, Bowie was still an important and persistent presence in my life. His music was a linchpin of my personal soundtrack, and his larger-than-life persona was a staple of the room-sized collages that adorned my bedroom door, bulletin board, and eventually the cinderblock walls of my college dorm.

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Great artists – writers, musicians, actors, painters – touch our hearts with their work. They become a proxy for our feelings, saying the things we are afraid to say, don’t know how to say, or aren’t even aware we need to say. This ability to capture and convey human emotions in a story, a song, a performance, or a painting is the closest thing to magic we humans have discovered. The transference of experience and emotion is a powerful tool for discovery and connection. Perhaps the most powerful tool.

But, if we go beyond our experience of great art – if we get a little meta (because that’s where my musings about David Bowie have brought me) – we find that there is something very moving about  the creative act itself.

Bowie was fascinating. He was an enigma, a rebel, an otherworldly force of nature. But, that wasn’t what drew me into his orbit and kept me there for all these decades. Yes, I loved his music and appreciated the message of the lyrics he wrote, but there was something else that went deeper than that. I’m only just now beginning to realize that the something else was the spirit in which he made his art – his creative drive and integrity, his insatiable curiosity, his courage and his commitment, and – not any less important – his sense of play and mischief.

Even more than the overt messages of his songs or the outlandish flair of his stage personas, my artist’s heart responded to the way he threw himself into his creations, the way he believed unwaveringly in the importance and value of what he was doing, the way he never gave up.

And, his road wasn’t easy.

Earlier this week, I watched a documentary about his very early years and learned just how hard Bowie had to work to develop into the artist he became. His earliest albums were wildly erratic explorations of strange territories, many of them very dark. He tried so many different styles, experimenting his way to becoming David Bowie. And with each step he pushed against personal, professional, and cultural boundaries in order to create the art he wanted to create because he believed it mattered.

That’s what makes my throat tighten and brings a tear to my eye – his faith in himself as an artist and his belief that the art – his art – mattered. How many people have that? How many people give themselves permission to create at all, never mind giving themselves carte blanche to create without constraint – to put it all out there, to be outrageous and beautiful, to ask the hard questions, to dive into the darkness, and yet – at the end of the day – to still be amazed that people take any of it seriously?

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I never needed Bowie to be my champion as an isolated or abandoned youth. I didn’t need him to tell me it was okay to be different. What I needed, though I didn’t know it, was someone to show me what it looks like to have faith in your art.

I’ve been mourning Bowie’s death because we lost a one-of-a-kind artist, but there’s more to it than that. As fans, ours is not the deep heartbreak of Bowie’s friends and family; but our grief is no less real. We may not have known the man – David Jones – personally, but he was a part of our lives nonetheless. When he died, a little piece of me died, too. My connection to my past became a little more tenuous. The reality of my own death became a little more concrete. As a friend of mine said on Monday, “It was only today that I realized he was mortal.”

And so, we come to the heart of the matter.

As human beings, we routinely forget that we are mortal. We grant ourselves a kind of immortality born of denial. We have time, we think. We have tomorrow. But then we lose someone like David Bowie, an artist who touched our lives deeply and who seemed to exist outside of the limitations of mortality, and we are reminded how little time we actually have, how fragile we really are.

As artists, this realization is terrifying; but it’s also a wake-up call. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that my mourning for Bowie is tangled up with gut-twisting feelings of regret and remorse for the time I’ve lost. The dark side of my admiration of his commitment to his art is the cruel comparison to my own creative shortcomings – all the times I’ve failed to follow his example, instead choosing the safe and comfortable path.

There will never be another Bowie, but each of us can learn from him. Bowie taught us many things about how to create art and how to live a creative life. Now, it’s up to us. You don’t have to be a rock star. You don’t have to be outrageous or famous. You just have to be the artist you already are. You have to embrace your own creative spark and spirit and find the courage to share that with the world.

Times columnist Caitlin Moran may have put it best,

When in doubt, listen to David Bowie. In 1968, Bowie was a gay, ginger, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak walking around south London in a dress, being shouted at by thugs. Four years later, he was still exactly that – but everyone else wanted to be like him, too. If David Bowie can make being David Bowie cool, you can make being you cool. PLUS, unlike David Bowie, you get to listen to David Bowie for inspiration. So, you’re already one up on him, really. YOU’RE ALREADY ONE AHEAD OF DAVID BOWIE.

Fans, critics, and even the people who were closest to him are calling Blackstar Bowie’s parting gift, but I think Bowie’s true parting gift is so much bigger. Teaching by example, he gave us an inspiring blueprint for how to believe in and commit to our own art. He didn’t hold back, and he never stopped creating. He remained eternally curious and enthusiastic. He experimented, collaborated, and played. And, perhaps most importantly, he embodied a steadfast belief in the intrinsic value of art and of the creative process.

What would Bowie do? No matter what, Bowie would make art. Thank you, Mr. Jones, for setting the example. Thank you.

Jamie Lee Wallace David Bowie fan, evolving writer, and creative human being. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

25 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – What would Bowie do?

  1. What a wonderful tribute to David Bowie. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I liked him and understood his importance in the music world and in culture in general. He was truly one of a kind. With Alan Rickman’s death this week as well, it’s a reminder of how much we love and appreciate artists who inspire us, and how important art is (whether it’s music, writing, film, etc) in our world.

    • Thank you, Tina. I was very sad to hear of Rickman’s death as well. Both he and Bowie seem to have been not only dedicated artists but also down-to-earth and generous human beings. My daughter and I will be watching Rickman in Galaxy Quest later today. (We’re not yet ready to see him in the Harry Potter movies). And I’m planning on watching Labyrinth sometime soon as well – the magic of Bowie and Henson and fantasy in one package … what more could you want?

      Have a lovely weekend.

  2. I was moved by your tribute to David Bowie, more so than I have been by others I have read this past week. And I laughed when you mentioned that your daughter would remember Bowie as the Goblin King. That’s how my wife Peggy remembers him as well. I was required to sit through Labyrinth last night. Afterwards I was glad. It’s a great movie. Thanks Jamie for your blog. –Curt

    • Thank you, Curt. Glad that the post made you laugh. 😉 I have taken much comfort this week watching clips of Bowie’s appearances on various British and U.S. talk shows. His sense of mischief and humor were impossible to contain. I loved to see that side of him in contrast to the often dark personas he created for his music. I’ll be watching Labyrinth again soon, too. Can’t wait to dance, magic, dance!

    • My feelings, exactly, Andrew. The best tribute we can pay is to follow in his footsteps – dancing our own dance, writing our own stories, creating our own characters, sharing our own version of the world.

  3. You know I just loved David Bowie’s music. I also have learned a lot more about his early days, wild parties, illicit sexploits with underage girls when he was old enough to know better, and, of course, his relationship with Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger etc. Then, in later years his marriage to Iman and coming to terms with God in a sense. She shares a fairly Godly attitude in his parting. I was unaware of a lot of this new information – the bisexuality was fairly well known – and I guess I just never thought about underage girls, etc. Still, I loved his art and acting and way of moving past convention to really get to a level of originality we’d never otherwise see in our lifetimes. The most interesting aspect is the unfolding of a lifetime and the evolution of an artist. We all evolve and in the artistry and mainstream notoriety perhaps it is a bit of a salve seeing the human side of a man who became a star. Love your tribute.

    • Thanks, Michael. I’ve been having a similar experience of discovering/rediscovering the backstory of David Bowie’s creative and “real” life. He definitely lived the rock-and-roll lifestyle in the early days. No question. But I have, as a matter of habit, steered clear of stories and information about the “sexploits” and other sensational aspects of his life. Celebrity does not absolve anyone of responsibility for their actions, but that part of his life is not what interests me. Some will say its not right that I compartmentalize things this way, but in the same way that I do not judge the man by his art, I do not want to judge the art by the man, if you take my meaning.
      Thank you for being here and sharing, and for reposting on your blog. Here’s to the human side.

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  5. Congratulations on a passionate and well expressed post and tribute to David Bowie. Alan Rickman’s death this past week has been a loss to many and a reminder of our own mortality. His legacy is clear. David Bowie will no doubt be remembered for his art, for his humanity but sadly too I know from personal experience, young lives were encouraged to journey into the dark side of life and while David himself managed to steer clear of being totally there a whole generation of young people went journeying down that same path and sadly never found their way back. Art for arts sake for narcissistic and self purposes often leads to destruction of lives (not saying that Bowie had that intention but many ‘lost’ lives like his was ‘…looking for something unattainable……are still pursuing (not for the betterment of others) but self-promotion. I remember John Lennon saying ‘We are bigger and better than Jesus Christ!’. Years later Paul McCartney said ‘That’s the attitude that brought us down and haunts me today.’ These people…Elvis, Beatles, Pop Stars ALL the creative ones who go for the moon often crash and burn when faced with eternity. Those who aim for the sun will glitter and sparkle but if they don’t have consideration for others on the journey will also implode. Let’s absolutely aspire for the best we can be but let’s never lose sight of the big picture. We only live ONCE. Lets write passionately, powerfully, about truth and life with all its pain – nothing hidden but always be conscious of who will follow and how strong they might be to face up to what we unleash. Well written blog. Here’s to the human side. Let’s hope David Bowie found rest and peace.

    • Hi, Faye.
      Thanks for such a thoughtful contribution to the conversation. I’m sorry that there are people in your life who struggled with their own journeys into the darkness. We must each bear responsibility for choosing and traveling our own road. Though we may walk beside others who are on a similar path, each of us makes our own decisions. For some, those choices are made harder by circumstance, personality, or chemical makeup.

      I agree that art for art’s sake is not a noble pursuit. Though I am still coming to terms with it, one of the things I admire most about Bowie is the way he lived his life – the way he seemed to “grow,” if you know what I mean. I was only a babe when he first came on the scene, but I have heard some stories about his very wild and unorthodox youth. But, the Bowie I know is the man who emerged from that “trial by fire,” if you will, to build his life around his art and his family. A fellow writer commented in a recent piece on the lack of fame-seeking that Bowie did in the second half of his life. No tours. No interviews. No splashes across the front pages of tabloids. No reunion tour. Just the work. The work, and time with his family. There is a grace and dignity in his choices that I admire greatly.

      Indeed, here’s the the human side of the artist.
      Thanks, Faye.

  6. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    David Bowie was a great talent and will surely be missed. I was not a fan. I didn’t dislike him, I just wasn’t very familiar with his music. Somehow, I sidestepped that phenomenon in my growing up, I guess somewhat distracted by other events in my life. But I know others who were deeply impacted by Bowie’s life and the stand he took for tolerance. I thought Jamie Lee Wallace’s article showed a lot of insight and honours him in a way that he would have appreciated. Jamie writes on the New Hampshire Writers’ Network, nhwn.wordpress.com I hope you enjoy my Sunday reblog.

  7. He started out as the Goblin King for me too. Im not that young though haha. my nieces and nephews keep asking me details about his work and as I’m trying to remember and put pieces together its reminding me of everything he’s done :(. Pretty great loss. He was a great actor but his songs had a lot of character as well if that makes any sense at all.

    • It makes a lot of sense to say that his songs “had a lot of character.” He built up his stage personas to a point where they almost had lives of their own – back stories and entourages and whole histories. From what I’ve read, it seems that his first love was actually acting – that he wanted to be a movie star – the “music thing” wasn’t the original goal. This is, perhaps, why he incorporated so much theatre and story into his music; and – ultimately – got to do both. His performance in the starring role of a Broadway version of The Elephant Man was highly praised.

  8. I am also affected by David Bowie’s passing. I was not a big fan but I just really liked his music. I think art particularly music affects our subconscious deeply. When you combine the strong visuals of his persona and videos with music, and watching it over and over again because you enjoyed it, I believe Bowie was imprinting it in memory. RIP David Bowie. Great work Mr. Jones.

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