Wednesday 22 November 2017

Brendan O'Connor: The manner in which David Bowie conducted his death was actually hugely life-affirming

At the traffic lights by Blackrock, I cried

David Bowie, Aladdin Sane tour (1973). Photo: V&A/PA Wire
David Bowie, Aladdin Sane tour (1973). Photo: V&A/PA Wire
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The morning after David Bowie died I climbed out of the coldest sea I had ever swum in and got into my car. The radio came on. Being slightly addled from the sea and the cold anyway, I was confused for a second as to why Ivan Yates and Shane Coleman were discussing Blackstar, the album Bowie had released three days before, on Friday. And really quickly, I realised there was only one reason why they were mentioning it - and then they said it again. He was dead. I'm not one for grieving for dead celebrities but this was different.

I drove home switching between channels, presumably hoping to hear that it was a hoax. I realised pretty quickly I didn't want to listen to any hacks or bullshitters giving Ladybird versions of Bowie for morning commuters.

And then I switched to a station that was playing Absolute Beginners, one of Bowie's more sentimental outings. And at the traffic lights by Blackrock, in a giant, red, fleece-lined coat and huge fur trapper hat, I started crying.

The funny thing is that, as sad as it sounds, I have been preparing for this for years. I have been expecting Bowie to die since his first disappearance from public life following his heart attack in 2004. And when I heard Where Are We Now? the single he dropped on an unsuspecting world three years ago, and saw the video for it, I became more convinced. It was elegiac and seemed like a man looking back, a man at the end. And every time a celebrity died and I didn't care, I'd often think that Bowie could be next, and Bowie would be an ending.

In the end, his death dropped much like that single. Three years later, nearly to the day. One morning in 2013, we woke up and discovered that Bowie was back and had been working on an album for over a year and grown men and women cried with joy. And one morning in 2016, we woke up and heard Bowie was dead and had been working on it for 18 months and grown men and women cried. And you suspect the similarities between the two were not unintended. As he says in Lazarus, the song and the video for which are now being regarded as a deliberate swansong: "I've got drama, can't be stolen."

For me, like for so many people, Bowie is different, different to all the other rock stars, to all the other celebrities. Bowie was always in my life. As long as I can remember. As a small child, my late brother Brian versed me in Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, Low, Heroes. All these albums that Bowie was shooting out at a ferocious rate, often more than once a year, when I was in short pants. Scary Monsters . . . was the first time I was aware of him as someone who was releasing music in real time. I thought the other stuff was always there. But in fact, a lot of that stuff was new and fresh when I was hearing it then as a small boy. And then Scary Monsters . . ., and he was suddenly real to me. He existed in the same world as me. Sort of.

I stuck with him loyally down the years, making myself like everything from Tonight to Reality. But it is that astonishing body of work from the Seventies that is in my DNA, that brings me back. At different times of my life I went back to different albums. Low has been a great friend at times. Hunky Dory in adolescence. Station to Station had a revival in my life in my late 30s. I've gone back to The Man Who Sold The World this last week, marvelling at the opera-like scope of a record made by a guy who was only 23. It wasn't always about the music, though there is a comfort in music you know inside out since childhood. It was about Bowie, his mystique, the drama he had that couldn't be stolen.

On Monday, somewhere between Blackrock and home, my wife rang in tears. I came home and my elder daughter came up to me delighted. "Daddy. I have a coincidence!" She was wearing her David Meowie T-Shirt, featuring a cat done up as Aladdin Sane. "I didn't even know he was dead!" she exclaims delightedly. "I just felt like putting this on today. Mommy told me to show you."

We go downstairs and the girls and I have a little dance. We go for Absolute Beginners and then Everyone Says Hi, another kind of schlocky one but poignant and perfect for the occasion: "Said you took a big trip/ They said you moved away/ Happened oh, so quietly/ They say/ Shoulda took a picture/ Something I could keep/ Buy a little frame/ Something cheap/ For you/ Everyone says Hi."

And I walk to work listening to Blackstar, David Bowie's new album, and suddenly the installation he made of his death starts to work. Suddenly, art works.

You see ultimately, David Bowie being dead is not a big deal. Marc Almond probably summed it up best when he tweeted: "Goodbye, Bowie, and our youth."

As with Diana, we are all crying for ourselves. I think I cried for the boy I was, for innocence, for my dead brother, who haunts me the way Bowie's haunted him. And for the fact that we are now categorically old. Bowie was always there, even when he wasn't. You knew he was out there somewhere. And now he's not.

Funnily, listening to Blackstar over the weekend, I had been thinking about how Bowie provided a good model for ageing. When you're in your mid-forties like me, you start to wonder how to age in a way that is true to your past and who you are. It doesn't seem enough just to become older the way people always have. We all knew how to be different to our parents when we were teenagers and even in our 20s and 30s.

But as it goes on and we accept more that we are all just the same and age is the great leveller, you start to wonder. Am I just going to end up playing golf, wearing clothes that old geezers wear? Will I cease to be different the way I've always striven to be and subsume my individuality into becoming just another old person? I can feel it already. My war with the world gets weaker and I'm reconciling myself to the human race.

And I spent the weekend listening to Bowie and thinking about him and I saw a way to get older. Mainly, I suppose he stopped caring what people think. He stopped explaining himself. He pursued his art for art's sake. He had done it all and he had it all, so finally he could just do what he wanted. It seemed to me that this album, for all its trickiness in places, was pure art, pure art of the kind that could only be made by an older geezer with nothing to prove except to himself.

I had been thinking that Bowie showed a viable way to age. Still exploring, still expressing, but doing it for himself now. As Keith Richards says: "I'm not getting old. I'm evolving."

Little did I know that Bowie was actually not just showing us a way to age, he was showing a way to die.

I listened to the album on rotation on Monday and Tuesday, hearing it better every time, getting under the skin of it, making it a friend. And the determination and the timelessness and the beauty of the album contrasted sharply with all the bogus emotion around Bowie's death. As people who didn't know David Bowie gathered to mourn, it became more and more distasteful. As a recently bereaved friend put it: "I hope these people are never actually bereaved."

And on Tuesday a funny thing happened. Not only was I not sad, I was finding David Bowie's death and the manner in which he has conducted it to be one of the most life-affirming things I've experienced recently. As a lot of people pointed out he made a piece of art of it. But more importantly than that, he made a massive, organic collaborative piece of art.

I didn't need to know David Bowie was dying. Why should he tell me? Why shouldn't he just keep working, hidden away, with that same mystique he always had? Besides, we are all dying. Why wouldn't he keep working? We all do.

More importantly, Bowie kept working to make his death into that work of art in which we could all participate, headphones on. We didn't need to know about the several heart attacks he endured while making Blackstar, about the two strokes we now learn he apparently had at some stage in recent years. He is not our friend, not our family. We relate to his death as we did to his life, from a distance, through the music and the mystery into which he distilled his life.

This was not about mourning a man we didn't know. This was about putting on our headphones and contemplating life and death and getting an insight into what we now know were the final preoccupations of a man who knew his life was ending. Bowie didn't quite live tweet his death but he made us an album while he was dying. And he may not have shared his final journey, as is the fashion now, but he did something much more than that. Through the album and last two videos he made, he gave us all the opportunity to be in his head, to walk through his most intimate places. But on his terms, without the kind of bullshit sentiment that accompanies every celebrity death and illness these days.

And in a funny way, a man who has just released an album can't be dead. And that was it really. You could not walk around listening to that album and feel sad and think he was gone forever. Bowie lived this past week. And his final message to us was perhaps: Ars longa, vita brevis.

Sunday Independent

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