As with so many things in life, I was a latecomer to David Bowie, and I stumbled across him in a weird way. (But then, if Bowie isn’t here for the strange and the tardy, who is he here for?) It was my junior year of college, and I was up late one night in my dorm room watching an episode of Venture Bros.—an always-rich vein of pop-culture references to learn and love—that kicked off with this scene:
Because I was apparently raised inside of an airless cultural gas bubble, I’d somehow never heard of this Major Tom before. So off I went to the Internet and found “Space Oddity.” I was instantly like, Sad, dramatic British man alone in space? Sign me the fuck up. I still can’t think of a more succinct description of what helplessness feels like than: “Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do.”
Look. I’ve always felt like that strange kid who was one step behind, one electron removed, one jump to the side from the rest of the human race. In elementary school, I spent two years of my life convinced I came from Pluto and had somehow accidentally ended up here—and I hadn’t even heard of The Man Who Fell to Earth yet. I couldn’t see a way to fit in, so instead I leapt out into my own self-created atmosphere; I felt like the world didn’t and wouldn’t ever get me, so I responded by getting weirder.
In our time, David Bowie was the one who paved the way for the weird kids—the freaks who compensated for their left-of-centerness by saying screw it and racing right out to the edge. He was a working-class kid with a permanently fucked left eyeball who reinvented himself, and then repeated the feat again and again and again. Bowie’s life was a work of art: Both Frankenstein and the Monster, he created himself over and over, unafraid to tear down his latest identity and strip-mine it for parts that he’d use in the next model. The Man Who Sold the World gave way to Ziggy Stardust gave way to the Thin White Duke, and on and on until the end of his days.
“It was no longer possible to take seriously the history of things as stage-managed by the media and the educational system,” Bowie wrote of the birth of glam rock in a 2001 op-ed for The Guardian. “Everything we knew was wrong. Burroughs, being the John the Baptist of postmodernism, had proselytised over this point for years. Free at last—or, if you like, at sea without a paddle—we were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it: with great big shoes.”
Everyone’s got their own Bowie, and 1970s androgynous alien Bowie—with his glam-kabuki makeup and the thousand-yard stare of a god who has fallen from wonders—was always mine. Ziggy Stardust, who on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” wailed, “You’re not alone! / Just turn on with me / And you’re not alone!”, who made it cool to stick out like a sore, bedazzled thumb.
All of which is to say, I hadn’t listened much to his more recent output. It felt too synthy, too icy for me. I wanted Bowie’s expressive voice and his spacey guitars unmediated. The “Blackstar” video gave me chills when it came out last month, but a listen to the full album when it dropped last week left me cold.
Then last night around 2am, as I sat up by the glow of my laptop working (or procrastinating) on a freelance article, a red banner appeared at the bottom of The Guardian‘s website: David Bowie Dead at 69. I shouted “What?!” out loud to my empty room. It couldn’t be true. Bowie couldn’t die. Bowie was an immortal alien Goblin King cat-person vampire rock god from Mars, and he was eternal. Bowie had just opened a musical Off Broadway. Bowie had a new album out. Hadn’t I just watched Bowie gyrating in a creepy blindfold last week?
When it finally sunk in, I turned off the lights, popped in my earbuds, and played “Starman” at maximum blast. “Look out your window, I can see his li-i-ight / If we can sparkle, he may land toni-i-ight.”
David Bowie’s life was a work of art, so it should be no surprise that his death was a work of art, too. He knew he had terminal cancer, chose not to bother the world with the fact, and quietly set about crafting his last gift to the world, his final puzzle box for us to tinker with after he’d gone.
A few days ago, he released the video for “Lazarus,” which we weren’t to know was his farewell—his self-penned epitaph. Over moaning guitars and weeping saxophones, he convulses in a hospital bed, two stones over his blindfolded eyes, payment for the ferryman to cross the river Acheron. “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now ain’t that just like me,” he sings, and finally he retreats backwards into a wardrobe, eyes fixed outward, closing the door behind him. He may have left the world before he wanted to, but he did it on his own terms. Creating himself anew, one last time.
Like I said, David Bowie was here for the weird kids. It was only today that I realized, looking at the outpouring of common grief that streamed across the Internet all night and all day, that there were a lot more weird kids out there than I thought. The world is full of weird kids—maybe, after all, nothing but—and Bowie in his many guises spoke to all of us.
“How clear it now is, how undeniable,” Tilda Swinton said in a speech about her friend/magical fairy doppelgänger in 2013, “That the freak becomes the great unifier. The alien is the best company, after all, for so many more than the few.”
So for everything you were and everything you left behind, Bowie: Thank you, from one weird kid to another. I hope your spaceship knows which way to go (o-oh).