I can’t stay in bed fully conscious for more than half an hour without having a panic attack. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, and started to pay for my poor judgement. I can’t leave my mind idle for long, before it wanders down one of the many short paths to mortal terror.
I distract myself over each day with the little things: coffee, the internet, work, TV, alcohol. But none of these are enough. None suppress the fear completely, they only dampen it. There’s a terror in knowing what the world is about. In knowing fragility and despair are paradoxically just as powerful as the strength we summon to survive until we can’t.
I look for more sublime things to shore up the bulwark against inescapable horrors. Music, reading, complex ideas, pondering the unknowns in the universe, from its size to my own inability to communicate why I like to stare across an ocean. Things that seem to transcend humanity, things that we need to transcend our own short and brutal lives.
David Bowie is one of those things. Beyond his music, I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to control his own cultural icon. As mercurial as his image was, there is always Bowie: an unbroken identity behind every combination of chords, sexuality, and fabric. His skill and talent made him a master of his art, and his confidence in embracing the strange made him the hero of so many of us who felt unable to grow up normal.
Part of it was illusion. There was always a manager, there was always cultivation of an image, and the man rode the same unpredictable river as everyone else. Illusion could explain the Bowie that’s part of our culture, but not the one that’s part of us.
I saw one interview where he was catatonically stoned and describing himself as a fly in milk, and another where he’s slouching against a desk, saying he doesn’t think of himself as an innovator, but as someone who merely knows how to tack when the wind is changing. These were my first glimpses of the human behind the figure, but after them I started to hear it in his music. He sings of fear, isolation, and alienation, and not just his own: he looks for other people’s pain, and in that search you can hear the fierce hope to help. The hippy kid in Space Oddity never went away. He was still trying to describe love to the very end, and always in the language of the real.
His legacy is the combination of the untouchable superstar, the infinitely changeable image, alien and goblin, and the undeniable human who always sounded like he truly wanted to connect with mortals from the mothership of fame, and sang of our human melancholy and our ecstasies to give us one more chance.
Bowie’s cameos are some of my favorite parts of his career, but Zoolander contains a moment that pierces reality. Only once in the movie does the fourth wall break, and it breaks for David Bowie. In this bizarro fashion universe, a conflict arises, and only Bowie can judge because he is both of the world and above it, and he descends immediately to take on the mantle. Not a single word of dialogue is needed to establish that Bowie is best man for the job, because we already know him: supremely qualified, fair and impartial, trusted alien arbiter of Earthly affairs. In the real world, it was him having fun with his own legend. His sense of humor about his mystique made him all the more accessible.
It’s surreal to hear of his death. The mortal, painfully honest man seemed so palpable when I sang along with him, but that man was also part of a thing that cannot die, but that thing was so powerful because it never obscured the man. He was the missing link between the human lives we live and the divine things we elevate to keep us living. Breaking that link feels like falling away from a dream. Like the silver screen went dark.
I rarely miss people I’ve never met. I will miss David Bowie.