You think some people will be around forever. Children of western civilization grow up with the perpetual presence of our idols in the background of our daily tribulations, and we come to rely on them as permanent fixtures. Even if you weren’t the world’s biggest David Bowie fan (full disclosure: I wasn’t) he was an undeniable pillar of the strange and constantly changing edifice we call popular culture, one that he carved himself to his own unique specifications – as though before him there had been a David Bowie-shaped hole that only he could fill. There was a reassurance to be found in knowing that he was always there, continuing to make challenging music and appear in quirky movie roles and push the boundaries of expectations in art, and while maybe nine-tenths of those projects would pass by unnoticed, one standout here and there would pique your interest, and it would be a singular David Bowie creation. It seems odd to think that Bowie’s life’s work is complete and there won’t be anything else from him. (Listening to “Lazarus” from his final album Blackstar this morning is a bit of an eerie experience.)
More musically literate scribes than myself will pen paeans to his aural masterworks. I come not to reel off deep album cuts but to offer only feebly-worded praise to the same great Bowie tunes that everyone else likes: “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” “Fame,” “Under Pressure,” “Let’s Dance” to name a mere, mere few – not to mention that wonderful annual Christmas oddity of his duet with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.” But I always liked David Bowie best as an actor. The profession suited him in a way it did few other musicians-turned-thespians, likely because his talent for reinventing himself was a perfect match to the art of screen performance. He wasn’t the glamour boy ported in for a high-wattage cameo struggling to deliver his lines; in every role you could see the thoughts going on behind the mismatched eyes, the true character emerging from beneath the natural “Hey! It’s David Bowie!” reaction the audience would be expected to have. He elevated anything he was in simply by choosing to take on the part, on occasion braving the essaying of historical figures such as Andy Warhol (in Basquiat) and Nikola Tesla (The Prestige), turning them into memorable, magical fusions of his own persona. He didn’t just show up and expect adulation – he acted. He earned it.
His appearance as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is my favorite Bowie role, brief as it is, and coming towards the latter half of what isn’t easy Saturday afternoon viewing. Befitting a musician’s approach, Bowie’s Pilate is a melody of complex notes: rational, reasonable, world-weary and oddly sympathetic, and one cannot watch the prototypical pop culture chameleon and author of “Changes” tell Willem Dafoe’s Jesus that “it doesn’t matter how much you want to change things; we don’t want them changed” without a wry grin. I’m certain Bowie himself was fully aware of the many levels of irony at work in that scene.
I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to say anything more about him; I leave that to those who were more invested in his career, who knew all the Bowie trivia, who looked up to him as a role model, who scored their lives with his music and waited breathlessly on each new iteration of David Bowie. It’s perhaps enough to leave on the note that Bowie’s passing is a reminder that life is truly a matter of turning and facing the strange, that evolution is the modus operandi of our tragic and beautiful limited existence. That there will always be changes, and how we adapt ourselves to the inevitability of such changes is a measure of how well we live our life. The man born David Robert Jones seems to have managed it exceptionally well, and one can speak best of a man by being able to say at the last that he left the world a little better than he found it.
If he has to be gone now, then let us accept and embrace the change just as he would have. To paraphrase David Bowie, we don’t know where we’re going from here.
But we can promise it won’t be boring.