Waking up to news of David Bowie’s death has been gut wrenching. It’s rare to feel such intense collective grief at losing somebody we knew both so well, and not at all. Over the course of six decades, Bowie has become a universal hero; a schoolboy from Bromley who became a Zeitgeist-setting pop culture icon; a sexually liberated, sparkle-eyed, shoulder-shrugging cultural presence who shaped all of us in some way.
When an icon as cherished as Bowie dies unexpectedly, the frenzied outpouring stories of what he meant to us brings solace. It affirms the importance of having powerful art to hang our hearts on while we all attempt to navigate this headfuck of a world.
A man of so many guises, there are so many ways we can remember Bowie – as an enormously influential musician, as a style icon, as a cult actor, a father and a cultural teacher. We could comb through interviews and listen to his back catalogue hitting play over and over into the early hours, but going to the core of what Bowie meant to the world on a personal level feels the truest way of honouring him right now, because so many of us are heartbroken.
Because of the intensely personal power of music – of listening behind closed bedroom doors, working through feelings, and sometimes being just utterly lost in music and nothing else – we all have individual connections to that ubiquitous voice that crooned and yelled through our speakers over his wildly different 25 albums. But we all share something too. “Felt like Bowie was one of the family growing up” one of my friends wrote online – and it’s true. He influenced generations of teenagers. He taught us about the magic of difference and of embracing change and tolerance. Through Bowie, we learned that we could walk down an aisle at the supermarket wearing something to make OAPs blush, and revel in it. We could kiss a girl or a boy, neither, or both, and feel like we didn’t have to answer to anybody. Most importantly, he taught us an undying appreciation of art for arts sake; the power of music to console, lift us up and tear us apart with its beauty. We learned to never stop demanding that art. “You’re not alone!” he howled at us in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Give me your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful.” Listening to Bowie in dark moments, we can always feel connected to something.
Introduced to Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory as a child by my Mum, I didn’t grasp that Bowie had already been an icon for an entire generation. Obsessed with The Spice Girls and All Saints, Bowie was my hero, and I assumed he was a little-known musician from the 70s. I wrote the lyrics to “Life On Mars” down on paper and learnt them by memory, “Lennon’s on sale again” I wrote, mistaking the communist for The Beatle. I even idolised that girl drinking milkshakes cold and long in an ice-cream parlour in “Five Years” as I listened intensely to the romance of apocalypse of the song on my CD Walkman, hairs on end.
As a homework-shirking teenager I clung to the lyrics in “Kooks” as a beacon of anti-school sentiment. “And if the homework brings you down, we can throw it on the fire and take the car down town.” Even through university, I shaped the song’s meaning to justify sacking off coursework when it got too much in favour of indulging in the sort of art I thought Bowie might approve of (usually going to the cinema alone). I had the hot ticket: permission from Bowie to abandon my desk and find fun and learn in other less conventional ways. This didn’t always help me, but I always loved the idea of parents telling their kids, “Look, sod your French homework, let’s take the car down town and find something to fill up your soul.”
Bowie was, and still is, a Great British Icon to love so utterly and uncompromisingly, when traditional patriotism feels complex and difficult to embrace. This was acutely felt at the London Olympics in 2012 when the spine tingling opening of “Heroes” was anthemic throughout BBC’s broadcasts of the games, bolstering a moment of united British pride in a way only he could. Fuck bunting, and tea parties and strawberries at Wimbledon, we thought, give us something true. And finally, we got it.
You don’t have to be an artist, or a creative to love Bowie because he transcends labels, age or class; you just have to have a heart. Hell, as much as I despise David Cameron (and wonder at the state of his heart), I can’t even hate him for making a statement about the influence of Bowie. Who am I to judge? A part of Bowie belongs to us all, he’s the ever-present soundtrack to life, outfoxing hate and always wooing with that particular wonky-toothed, thin-lipped smile. In interviews this skill particularly shone, as he shoulder-shrugged decades worth of interviewers trying, godammit, to figure him out. In a 2002 interview with Jonathan Ross, Bowie was asked “What was the deal there? You were gay for a while… then you were not gay?...” “No,” Bowie interjects. “I was just happy.”
In interviews, Bowie approached his sexuality as just not a big deal. When asked about his infamously hedonistic phases, Bowie was kind (another skill which was so the antithesis of the can-kicking rockstar, and so very Bowie) and sometimes politely dismissive, as if being asked to recall a particularly tasty dessert from 20 years ago. Why would we need the details? Not needing to share the details still feels, in 2016, forward-thinking.
When Bowie killed off his Ziggy Stardust persona in 1973, he was honouring a decision to keep on living in the moment, to always go against the grain, and change what ‘now’ sounds like. His continued commitment to following his own gut, (from moving to Berlin to kick an out of control drug addiction to backing away from frequent public interviews in the 2000s) and always rejuvenating himself creatively was never about making other people feel comfortable, it was about following his head. That’s an important lesson to anyone; embrace change, because it’s always burning and it’s all we’ve got.
“Do you indulge in any form of worship?” Russell Harty asked Bowie in a 1973 interview. “Uh. Life.” Bowie replied unequivocally. “I love life very much indeed.” As we all continue to float in this most peculiar way, one thing’s for sure – the stars look very different today.
Follow Stevie Mackenzie-Smith on Twitter here @dconfusion