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Blow Out the Candles – Surviving the Death of David Robert Jones

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This is not an obituary – there have been enough of those, many written by writers far better qualified than I – and it’s not especially a remembrance. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand the magnitude of my reaction to the death of David Bowie. I’d guess we all had a response of a personal nature that went beyond the dimensions expected when an artist of this importance, an artist as revered as Bowie is, (especially one that, in addition, was virtually glowing in the wake of such a late-career triumph like Blackstar) passes suddenly from a cancer we didn’t even know he was fighting. Certainly rugs have seldom been pulled from under us with quite this force, and the impact as we hit the floor jarred loose the essence of what connected us to him personally, how each of us first became aware of him, how the work he did moved us in that peculiar, sacred mojo way that only rock’n’roll has, and those memories rose into our throats, mixing there with sorrow and our sense of intimate tragedy and we spoke it the best we could. This is grief. Collective universal grief. Tribal grief. It’s taken me a week to work through this. While trying to find my way I failed, succeeded, failed again. Eventually I gave up trying and let the way find me, maze-like though it inevitably was. None of this poured out of me. It was too complicated for that, and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

This, then, is essentially a transcription of my own grieving process, some of which may profoundly resonate with yours, most of which will not, just as it should be. In the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, I’m somewhere between ‘acceptance’ and ‘fuck you, death.’ Where are you at? There’s a comment section down there below if you feel like letting us know. Right now it’s not just the stars, but the daylight, the twilight, the sun, the moon, the rain in the street, it’s all looking pretty different to me. I’m just trying to make sense of it.

Just recently, on January 8th, I turned 60 years old, celebrating at the Oregon Coast with my wife and David Bowie. No, not a delusional fantasy – though I will allow it was long an aspirational one – but ever since I discovered in my early 20’s that I shared a birthday not only with Elvis Presley but with Bowie as well, I couldn’t help but feel this odd, loftily kindred spirit hovering above the candles (I was born on Bowie’s ninth birthday while Elvis turned 21 that day, so the latter, happy as I am to claim him as a birthday twin, was, by every metric save the timeless spell of rock’n’roll, of a previous generation).

Early on it was never overt, just a general gladness that I was beaming in a kind of shared glow with someone of such unique luminosity. His work was quite often of such astonishing craft, created out of realms of existence I could scarcely imagine that, like many people I’d guess, I felt a great distance between the life of the artist and mine, even as I was often moved, and at least as often rocked, to states approaching if not trespassing unbridled joy. Bowie, for all his cerebral flights, knew as well as anyone ever has the fundaments at the heart of rock and roll, and used them often to stunning impact.


But somehow the fact that this somewhat extravagant, frequently flamboyant and not a little transgressive musician, wherever he was (and conceivably at the same moment) was participating as I was in that most basic human ritual – celebrating the anniversary of one’s arrival onto this blue planet, into this glorious chaos – had the effect of shortening that distance considerably. No doubt the further fact that few themes seemed to greater occupy him lyrically than the marking – and elastic passage – of time also served to enhance this oddly intuitive sense of connection. We’re all fascinated by our own too-brief transit through our allotted days and Bowie was no different, tackling it early and notably on “Changes” but in truth such thoughts were never far from the man’s attentions.

Thus things remained through the decades, the two of us, from my vantage, traveling in a kind of oblique parallel as he phased through a spectacular career well enough documented that no rehash is needed here and continuing through the years of relative inactivity that marked the greater part of the current century. Then a curious thing happened.

Around nine in the evening of January 7th, 2012, I was at the computer fielding early birthday wishes and just generally behaving in a Facebook way when a link popped up: the completely (to everyone not named Tony Visconti) surprise release of a new David Bowie single.


Hearing “Where Are We Now” – released 12:00 AM New York time, Jan. 8th – ranks as probably the most eloquent, spellbinding moment I’ve experienced listening to music. As it played the first time – second time third time fourth time, I couldn’t stop – I did my best to express the boundless brooding-tinged joy I was feeling to my friends that were sharing in the experience online but every word was feeble in the face of the emotion that was pouring through me. A tad irrationally, maybe, I was proud and happy for Bowie himself, but more – greater – than that, I was proud and happy to be alive, tears running down my face, that rictus grin of utter joy. It’s arguably true that exuberance is at its most powerful when accompanied by jaw-dropping disbelief. If that’s the case and I think it is then the sudden appearance of “Where Are We Now” is the definitive example. What a birthday present.

Presumptuous as it may sound, though, there was something more behind the gravity of my reaction to that birthday single. It marked the impression – fed further by The Next Day album a couple months later and gaining momentous enforcement once the first murmurings foregrounding Blackstar began seeping out – that the man was moving, forcefully and without a trace of resignation, into a period of embraced maturity, Ziggy and the Thin White Duke and all the other guises and feints melting away and morphing with a tender determination into the older artist known simply as ‘David Bowie,’ standing alone on a pedestal of his own quixotic making. The views are longer from there, as are, it can’t help but be noticed, one’s own shadows. Perspective practically begs to have its measure taken. To some extent (of course) Bowie resisted and pushed forward but no way could he reasonably expect to escape his illuminative past and he knew it. Both late records pulse with that knowledge, eschewing nostalgia (again, we say, ‘of course’) while embracing, intuitively at least, the vast wealth of beauty and electricity forever alive in the legacy pressing up behind him. For me, though, despite both records’ renewed evidence of vital Bowiesque trademarks – the synthesis of left-field currents into his work, the fearless reach, the gnomic winks of playfulness – it’s the elegaic, late-in-the-evening feel to which I’ve most responded. All that Einsteinian puzzle-making with the illusions and assumptions of time had given way to an accepting wistfulness of sorts, an acknowledgement that the ultimate dame will indeed have her say regardless. Nothing maudlin, naturally, but nonetheless present and very real.

As a result, with that irrational but emotionally true assurance we allow ourselves with those musical idols/legends we feel closest too – I’m sure many felt this in relation to Lou Reed’s later works, for instance – Bowie and I seemed to be drawing closer simply by the leavening mechanism of age. That oft-remarked upon distance in his earlier work – even at his most vulnerable, as on Low, a veil presided – was being allowed to fall away in the face of the inevitable. The bright grey glimmer of mortality, it would appear, has the effect of winnowing down the artifice.

All this helps explain the depth of at least my own reaction this past week. I’d have been fairly gutted regardless but the intensity was more than I might have anticipated. They’re all tough, these departures. Lemmy, Lou, just the other day it was goodnight Otis Clay. Joe Strummer was over thirteen years ago and still the heart stings. So why has the death of David Robert Jones hit harder than any since the murder of John Lennon? A combination of factors, certainly, but chief among them for me was the mere accident of birth and the residual fact – which I’ve only just come to realize – that I was subconsciously counting on him to act as a kind of enigmatic guide as I negotiate my own way down that paradoxical path whereon an enthused, ever-curious, and immortal 23-year-old still owns the heart beating inside this 60-year-old body. It was as if Bowie was graciously slowing down so I could catch him, until we reached that point where we were blowing out the same candles. It’s all just age, of course, the sweet slow slide into mortality and in most ways I don’t mind, it’s rather agreeing with me even as I outwardly push back against it. I was just hoping Mr Jones would hang around a bit longer. I could use that smile and ridiculous as it may sound, I can’t help but think that turning 61 is going to have this little twinge of loneliness to it come next January 8th.

I’ll let Lazarus take it from here.