When Thrilleana came back from the music store the other day with the vinyl version of David Bowie’s newest work, Blackstar, I didn’t know that this would be the last Bowie album released in his lifetime. I had lost that particular celebrity death pool, if only because I’d never entered him into it. Of all the ancient music celebrities still around, I didn’t think he would be the next one to check out.
Maybe it was because part of me foolishly thought he was, somehow, immortal. Like maybe he was actually Count St. Germain, who had long ago, discovered the secret to immortality and was just playing it cool, pretending to age, for our benefit. Or that maybe he would never die, by eventually becoming the first cybernetically-immortal human; I don’t know. I could make up stories pertaining to Bowie’s true nature until the cows come home, but one thing’s for sure, most of them only work when he’s alive. And I, for one, didn’t think he’d die so soon.
At least not for a little while. And as such, I found myself impressed by the grimness of this news, though strangely unsurprised that he had been sick, a fact largely unknown in the media. He didn’t really make it clear through the conventional channels—he didn’t have a 60 Minutes interview, he didn’t mumble something about a diagnosis to Charlie Rose. Though, in retrospect, he did make it clear in other, less obvious ways.
This all reminds me of another musical death, one similar to Bowie’s, though fundamentally different in a very important way.
Warren Zevon was diagnosed in mid-2002 as having inoperable mesothelioma. He refused treatments that would incapacitate him, and instead, began recording his final album, The Wind.
His death was very public. There are clips of his final appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, where he talks about his diagnosis, and laughs about his pending mortality, which he says was contributed to by a “tactical error…not going to a physician for 20 years”.
Laughing about mortality had been a hallmark of his music. Strangely, much of the music he had written about mortality had been written before the diagnosis, so make of that what you will; some people think he was on to something; I think its just his achingly black sense of humor, something I’ve imitated over the years, mostly out of sincere envy.
Songs played on Letterman include “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, as well as his last song of the show, Letterman’s favorite, an action piece called “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”. There is a defiance at work here, despite the macho-critical, inverted bravado of the song, itself. This awkward, handicapped strutting is the weird of realm of cognitive dissonance that his music lived in—that you can talk about rape and murder, using major chords. And so, it almost seemed natural, that this man, who claimed no regrets, except maybe that he regretted having used his dentist as his doctor, was now on Letterman for the very last time, saying to everybody watching in TV land, and now, on YouTube, “Enjoy Every Sandwich”.
A very public death, indeed. That last month of his life had been spent hurriedly finishing his last album, which strangely, in my opinion, was to be perhaps his least comically morbid album. After all, his celebrity friends were all on it, packed into song after song, all saying goodbye.
Bowie, on the other hand, had what seemed like a very private, inward physical collapse. Having been diagnosed eighteen months prior to his death, it seems he told nobody. Well, at least, he didn’t tell me.
Or did he?
Like Zevon, once learning of his inpending mortality, Bowie embarked on the task of writing and producing an album, knowing that, like Zevon had said once, his “Shit’s Fucked Up”. And he likely knew there’s a good chance he might not get another opportunity.
Bowie, who had made a career weaving otherworldly, alien identities into his works. Bowie, who for years I assumed would outlive Keith Richards, and who, while apparently mortally ill, had managed to release–on his birthday, no less–a dense and at times dissonant, jazz-informed, post-rock record–one that seems, in retrospect, to so obviously describe his illness. Example:
So its there. He mentioned it. He just didn’t do it the way that was obvious, or literal. Nile Rogers, producer of “Lets Dance”, said he knew something was up when Bowie accepted an award from his charity foundation by film. “I could see that he wasn’t well,” he said. I could see, by these songs, that he wasn’t well. Because, though he didn’t tell the news, he stated it the best way he could: by performing it. That is how he told us.
There is the way we live, and there is the way we die. My grandmother died due to complications in surgery, but I like to think she died dancing, because thats what caused the surgery—she was dancing, she fell, then she was in surgery. The way we die is intrinsically tied to how we lived. Usually.
Because sometimes, death is cruelly ironic (Paul Walker, who died in the passenger’s seat of a car, due to someone else’s reckless driving, a la Fast and Furious) and sometimes, it’s defiantly asymmetrical (Stevie Ray Vaughn, who did the guitar solo in Bowie’s China Girl, and who beat a serious cocaine addiction, only to be killed in a helicopter crash). Sometimes it’s purely, unimaginatively accidental (Kurt Vonnegut, who hit his head and died some weeks later). Sometimes its obvious (Sid Vicious, who died slamming junk), and sometimes its obvious and dumb (Nancy Spungeon, who died hanging around Sid Vicious). Theres how Hitler died (i.e. he didn’t — no, just kidding; he’s quite dead). Theres how fictional characters died (Maude Flanders, who “died after being knocked off a grandstand by a t-shirt cannon at the Springfield Speedway, because Homer had made the Fan-demonium girls shoot right directly at him all at once”). Then there is how you’re going to die. You won’t know. None of us do.
Cliche though it is, death is a part of living. We don’t really get to control it. Its just a thing that happens. And its the last thing that will happen to you, because, as Zevon had said, “Life’ll Kill Ya”. And these two artists, and the strict control they maintained over their creative voices, up until the very end, demonstrate two very different ways that situation can play out—both, equally humbling in their power.
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