The Man Who Fell To Earth rose back up to Heaven.
I woke up early this morning, groggy and bleary-eyed with sleep, not expecting to see the devastating news plastered all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds: David Bowie had died, of cancer, at the far too young age of 69, a mere three days after his birthday. My jaw dropped; the news was unbelievable. I don’t think I knew what to say beyond a guttural “goddammit.” I think the world over felt the same way.
No written word today can truly do justice to the icon that is David Bowie. His imprint on music, on film, on culture, on life as we know it, is massive. More than massive — monumental. There was truly no one like him, and there will be no one like him again. Pretenders to the throne, maybe, people who can strike Bowie-like poses and look like good, reasonable facsimiles, but they will never have the striking otherworldly quality and slippery, chameleonic nature that Bowie graced us with.
I am watching The Hunger as I type this, my own personal way of honoring the Thin White Duke. It is a weird experience, because it is strangely apropos of the world today. Tony Scott’s directorial debut, it’s a gauzily stylish and haunting tale of seduction, vampirism and obsessive eternal love, a heated slice of Gothic horror romanticism filtered through an early-MTV universe of diffusive white light and gently billowing curtains. It stars Bowie as vampire John Blaylock, the aging lover of the even older Miriam Blaylock (fellow legend Catherine Deneuve.) As an ages-old vampire, Miriam is immortal; her vampirized companions, however, are not so lucky, seemingly ageless until the cracks show, at which point the years seep in with a crashing wave. In one of the film’s centerpiece sequences, John, who has gone from 30 to 50 within a day, seeks the assistance of a doctor (Susan Sarandon) seeking a cure for the premature-aging disease progeria. While she makes him wait in her office, he proceeds to age another thirty years, becoming an old man before our eyes.
Watching the impossibly alien beauty of Bowie wear down and wither, his hair growing thin and falling out, in the wake of the news that he had cancer is an eerie and surreal sight, a depressing reminder of the news we all awoke too. When Miriam, in her refusal to let her lover go, entombs his desiccated physical incarnation in a private sarcophagus, it feels like a metaphor for our refusal to let go, to believe that he’s gone. And, in a way, he’s not; the breadth of art he’s left us with his, is our monument to his genius.
The Hunger is not the only great film Bowie starred in. As a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook — and which was pointed out to him — the man born David Jones (he took on his stage name to avoid confusion with the Monkee) acted for a rogue’s gallery of amazing directors, starring in a string of big and small roles for the likes of Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige), Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) and, of course, Jim Henson in the beloved fantasy epic Labyrinth. And, as my friend, pointed out, this was his side gig. Bowie wasn’t an actor by trade, though he was a great one, one of the rare pop stars who could transition from the stage to the screen, and it’s telling how great he was in the fact I spent most of my time now speaking about his hobby rather than the thing that made him famous.
Probably because to speak at length about the impact of his music career is damn near impossible. When trying to gauge the way songs like “Moonage Daydream”, “Suffragette City”, “Changes”, “Rebel Rebel”, “Fame” and more affected the flow and history of music, words fail me. David Bowie was a lightning rod, a force of life that changed the face of music. He didn’t just make great songs; he changed us, his electric energy hard wiring itself into our very souls, sending us on a prismatic journey into outer space and opening our eyes to a new world, a new universe, a gender-bending, genre-bending landscape of sexed-up alien wonder. Bowie wasn’t just a rock musician, he explored, toyed with and combined genres, forever investigating new sounds and styles and making them his own. He made ever-hungry wonder beguiling and sexy.
But there was something more important than movies or music that Bowie left behind: himself. For all great performances he gave and all the great music he sang, the single most monumental thing Bowie ever created was David Bowie. He was magnetic and fearless, a sly freak who taught the rest of us that it was okay to be freaks too. His gaunt physique and heterochromatic eyes gave him the look of an alien sex symbol, and his androgynous style told boys and girls alike that it was ok– ok to be different, ok to play with gender norms, ok to be themselves.
He was open about his bisexuality at a time when being such wasn’t as accepted, especially if you were a man. He never locked himself into one form. He was a shapeshifter, redefining himself with each album, forever exploring the boundaries of who he could be. He did so with such effortlessness, such confidence, such style, that he inspired generations of weirdos to let their freak flags fly, to carve out our own little pieces of life on Mars. Whereas most icons played safe and confirmed heteronormative gender binaries, Bowie was generous, speaking to the deep inner pools of people regardless of sexual organ of birth, a beautiful soul whose existence urged you to embrace your own beautiful souls. That is at the crux of why David Bowie matters and why his passing is such a devastating loss to millions of people. He was more than an artist; more than an icon; more than a legend.
He was an inspiration.