A GENERATION is waking up to its mortality, writes Victoria White. That’s what’s been happening for the last 10 days as Bowie’s Blackstar reaches No 1 in the US and the UK charts and his tracks are streamed 19m times in the space of a week.
As British journalist Stuart Machonie wrote, “For those of us who grew up in the 1970s the passing of David Bowie is a moment of huge and seismic generational grief. We knew the greatness and heft of Kennedy and Presley and Lennon — but even so, they felt like giants from a different era. Bowie was ours, the first pop star of the post-Apollo age.” At first there was a fair bit of disbelief. One report even called the 69-year-old’s death “premature”. It was premature in the sense that every death is premature. It felt especially premature because Bowie was so talented and had such a young daughter.
But he completed nearly the average global lifespan for men. He died 10 years earlier than the average British man but that was quite an achievement given the extent to which he abused his body in early life.
As we know, Bowie beat an addiction to hard drugs and had a glass in his hand semi-permanently in his early career. He smoked 50 cigarettes a day until his heart attack in 2004. There is a wonderful video of him rehearsing ‘Under Pressure’ for the Freddie Mercury Aids Awareness Tribute concert in 1992. He has a cigarette in his hand the whole time and has to juggle it back and forth to do the finger clicking.
I wish the guy could have lived until he was 100. But his death can’t be termed “premature” in any rational, scientific sense.
So where does that leave us? On death row, that’s where. The baby boomer generation, loosely spanning the ages 50 to 70, does not have long to live. The last idols of the 1960s will drop quickly from now on; this week it was the turn of Glenn Frey from The Eagles.
I am a young baby boomer who missed out on early Bowie but he has always been around. Until now. As Kate Bush said this week the worldwide reflex shock that “someone who had already transcended into immortality could actually die”. But none of us is immortal. Not even Western baby boomers who never had to contend with war and who have had access to the best living conditions, the best food and the best medical care in world history. It’s curtains for us too. We’ll be going into “the next room”, to quote the sentimental poem by Henry Scott Holland, as surely as Bowie shuts the door behind him in the video for his single, ‘Lazarus’.
UK journalist Jeremy Clarkson was full of scorn at the weekend that there was such communal grief over a death which didn’t happen tragically because a driver sped into the wall of a tunnel in Paris or a sniper took aim at an open-top car in Dallas, for instance.
But that’s the point. The most shocking thing about David Bowie’s death was that it should not have been shocking. He was getting on in life and he died of cancer, as will about 20% of us Westerners.
And that’s sad. I get unreasonably melancholy when I play his old love songs to dancer Hermione Farthingale on the early album Space Oddity. Bowie said later that the break-up had “destroyed” him and he was sending her messages through his songs which “didn’t work”. It’s so poignant to hear the young singer so full of hope when he is dead now and the memories have died with him. They never did get together again.
It rams home the fleeting nature of life. We’re only young once and the experiences we have in youth will inevitably colour our whole lives. Those of us who are middle-aged are looking back now, back at intense romance and sky-high expectations. We won’t be going there again.
And yet there is huge liberation too, in Bowie’s Blackstar message. A UK-based doctor, Mark Taubert, blogged movingly during the week about how the album had helped a terminal patient to discuss her death with him, especially the wish that a loved one would hold her hand: “I believe this was an aspect of the vison she had of her own dying moments that was of the utmost importance to her”, he said, “and you gave her a way of expressing it.”
The pretence that life has no end in which our generation indulges deadens our lives. You’re much more likely to trot along on your hamster wheel if you don’t realise it could stop suddenly. If you know it will there’s a chance you’ll get off and do the things which mean something, at least to you.
Bowie’s death and his Blackstar album have done that for me. I’ve gone back to my local church choir. Bowie said that when he heard Little Richard singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ he knew he had heard God and he wanted to meet him. I hear God when I hear Bowie sing ‘Life on Mars’ and because I can’t write a song the best I can do is sing in harmony. I may even learn to play ‘Life on Mars’ on the piano because I’m finally taking action on those endless resolutions to learn to play the piano.
I contacted my old friends in their different global outposts. I went out and bought make-up for the first time since I was a kid — not just because we all need it at this stage — but because Bowie’s stage work teaches us that artifice is more honest, in a way, than the lack of it.
I am thankful every day that my partner comes home from work. How lucky I am to still have him around unlike the 250m widows in the world whose ranks — if I were a betting woman — I will some day have to join.
We are a Western generation which scorns religion but it’s fascinating how, faced with Bowie’s death, we’ve come up with the answers given by humanity through recorded history. We’ve sent him to the stars like King Tut. We’ve even given him his own constellation.
Bowie anticipated our response and ordered his own private cremation so we wouldn’t make his grave a place of pilgrimage. But we’re doing well enough with Brixton and New York and anywhere you can paint a mural. All we need now is a “sighting” of a revenant Bowie and we’ll have a Messiah.
We can’t help it because we are born to hope. And Bowie didn’t kill that hope. He described himself recently as “not quite an atheist” and encourages us in ‘Lazarus’ to find him in the stars with the words, “Look up here, I’m in heaven”. It’s possible Blackstar heralds a new openness about death and a new awareness of how precious life is. But it’s more likely we’ll forget it in a few weeks — until we face our own bad news alone.
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