I wasn’t a fan of David Bowie’s music — candidly, his widespread popularity rather bewildered me. I simply never got the appeal. I recall standing as a young boy in a local department store’s record department, staring at images of the British rocker’s skeletally androgynous, spikey-orange-haired “Ziggy Stardust” persona and being confused; mildly disturbed actually. Was I looking at a man? A woman? Who/what was this character?
Still, news from earlier this week of his unexpected passing, aged 69, following a brief battle with cancer, strummed a chord with me. John Donne’s haunting words come to mind: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind … [N]ever send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Personally, Bowie was a controversial “taboo-breaker and … dabbler,” according to biographer David Buckley, “[who] mined sexual intrigue for its ability to shock”. Although married since 1992 to Somali-born fashion model Iman, back in the early ’70s he played a signal role in pioneering the whole transgender thing, long before it became the Caitlyn-Jenner pinnacle of “courageous” trendiness lauded by many today. That same decade, he briefly commended fascism before sharply denouncing it a few years later.
Creatively, his five-decades career was one of which your typical America Idol contestant could only dream: celebrated vocalist/songwriter, fluent on guitar, keyboard, saxophone and a colorful variety of other instruments; twenty-five albums, nearly two-dozen Hot 100 hits; numerous film roles, widely acclaimed work on Broadway (The Elephant Man); versatility personified.
What struck me most in reports of Bowie’s passing was the stubbornness of his artistic output following diagnosis of his ultimately fatal illness eighteen months ago. Literally up until his final days, “The Thin White Duke” was generating new material, continuing to impact his craft. Last Friday, his 69th birthday, he released his latest album, the critically hailed Blackstar. His final music video, “Lazarus”, had bowed the day before. (An off-Broadway production of the same name, co-written by Bowie and featuring new and classic Bowie tunes, premiered in November; his “swan song” to the world.) Producer Tony Visconti relates the South Londoner had informed him, one week before his decease, he had five fresh tracks already written and demo-ed for yet another album.
“I knew what I wanted to be, which was a songwriter and a performer,” he confided to Blender back in 2002 — and even a bout with cancer, apparently, proved unable to shake that focus. This is especially impressive in our too-often-idle, too-easily-distracted, couch-potato, play-station-smitten age. A guy sharpening his talents nearly to the moment he breathes his last? No denying, that’s striking; particularly while multitudes around him dribble away their existences bathed in their television’s glow, daydreaming of what their lives might be someday, neglect and disuse atrophying their abilities.
Thousands of years ago, Solomon admonished, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Centuries later, “Lord, let me not live to be useless,” became John Wesley’s constant heart-cry. “I hope to die in harness,” were the similar sentiments of writer Corrie Ten Boom.
Admittedly, that trio was resolved to spend whatever time the Creator gave them for His glory. It’s evident such a claim can’t be made with any authority of the habitually dissenting David Bowie. Even so, one could model worse traits in 2016 than his diligence.
Speaking of Bowie’s religious inclinations, over the course of his adulthood the spiritually peripatetic Brit flirted with Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Nietzsche-ism, even Satanism. Despite the haunting opening lyrics of his just-released “Lazarus” (“Look up here, I’m in Heaven”), at the end his spiritual condition, to say the least, remained uncertain.
During a 2003 Beliefnet interview, Bowie conceded, “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing … [B]ecause I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on: Well, I’m almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months.” He then added: “That’s the shock: All clichés are true. The years really do speed by. Life really is as short as they tell you it is. And there really is a God—so do I buy that one? If all the other clichés are true… don’t pose me that one.”
Bowie’s ruminations remind us, noitwithstanding the aggressive, secularist campaigning of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, et. al.: human beings yearn, irresistibly and achingly, for meaning on this mortal coil beyond eating, drinking, copulating, defecating, dying; similarly, for life beyond the all-too-temporal earthly phase. That persistent yen doesn’t mean, by itself, a transcendent and heavenly reality exists — just as it doesn’t automatically affirm it does not. History, the nature of creation, eons of personal experience and the written record of the Jewish/Christian Scriptures all add up to contend for the reasonableness of an eternal perspective. That said, it’s more than debatable that Bowie, regrettably, remained unconvinced.
Soberingly, a March 31st Carnegie Hall Tribute to the iconic glam-rocker, featuring the likes of Cyndi Lauper, The Roots and Ann Wilson, was announced mere hours before his death. The show will proceed — now a memorial concert.
For David Bowie, at this juncture, what does all that mean? Undeniably, he was a prominent and successful figure of late 20th century rock-and-roll. Fans and friends who survive him are saying nice things a-plenty about him. All the same, the bell finally tolled for the celebrated musician/actor; his time ran out. Bluntly, if for “Ziggy Stardust” everything dead-ends into dust and darkness, how much comfort can his ample accomplishments and post-mortem honors provide him?
“Vanity of vanities,” lamented that Eccleciastes sage, mimicking the unbeliever’s hopelessness; “All is vanity!” (1:2). Jesus, even more exactingly, questioned, “For what is a man profited, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Aimee Herd terms it the “nothing-else-matters” clarity that confronts everyone facing death. Donne poetically acknowledged the ruthless phenomenon; Bowie’s denouement reminds us of it. Was he prepared for it? Who can say for sure?
One early Christ-follower penned, “These things have I written to you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 – emphasis added). The Savior Himself promised “life abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s fullness of life in the here-and-now, and assurance – “you may know” – of life undying; for those who turn to Him from their hearts.
Was the industriously prolific Mr. Bowie persuaded in his final days – even final instants? We can hope – but it’d sure be better if that wasn’t our only option.