How rare and remarkable. Until today I only had half as much to say about David Bowie as I do now, but that already seemed more than could ever be exhausted. He was, for one thing, my standard of male beauty, and for better or worse I think my main desire throughout adolescence and early adulthood was nothing more or less than to be as thin as the Thin White Duke, or at least somehow just to be more like him, so gracile and enchanted and perfect. It didn't work, but that's what secretly animated my inner life.
As far as I've been concerned his career lasted from roughly 1969 until, precisely, the video for 'Ashes to Ashes' in 1980. After this he disappeared for three years and then came back in 1983 as what always looked to me like a pure aesthetic echo of Reaganism, thus plainly and unmistakably announcing the total split between popular culture and the artistic avant-garde that characterised that dismal decade and each one after it. Some National Review contributor a few years ago tried to argue that 'Heroes', from the artistic high-point of Bowie's Berlin period in the late 1970s, was one of the great 'conservative' rock songs of all time, since it deplored the existence of the Berlin Wall, and thus foreshadowed Reagan's famous challenge to Gorbachev. Well, certainly Bowie was no Brezhnevite or Honeckerite, but even if what he was doing was prophesying events to come, in 1977 he was doing so not as an ideologue, but as a visionary. Even his praise for Hitler and fascism around the same period could not be called political exactly; it was, I suspect, part of the general rediscovery of the totalizing aesthetics of the 1930s, which in the 1970s influenced even spiritually antifascist German groups like Kraftwerk, and also of the playful and ironizing uptake of the horror of World War II in, for example, independent cinema of that era (so-called 'Nazi exploitation').
Anyhow post-Scary Monsters the transformation was so complete that when in 1986 or so I first learned of Bauhaus's cover of 'Ziggy Stardust', it was in the context of hearing high-school goths trying to explain why such a cool band would have anything to do with the weenie responsible for 'Let's Dance'. But then we all got a bit more encyclopedic and learned to appreciate genealogies (among other things we learned what 'Bauhaus' actually meant), and a general line emerged according to which the Bowie of the 1970s was simply a different person than the Bowie of the 1980s (and different in a different way than all the characters he embodied over the course of the '70s were different). I saw him in concert in 1987, during the Glass Spider tour in some big sports stadium in San Jose. It was tedious and stupid, and I remember thinking already then something like, "Oh well. RIP."
But now, really, all this needs to be revised: his artistic career should be dated, like we sometimes see for bands that break up and reunite: "1969-80, 2015-16". How many people are in a position to conquer their own death with art? How many of those who are in such a position would dare to try? I'm still processing Blackstar musically, but poetically I'm certain it's a masterpiece. Especially 'Lazarus'. It is the sort of transformation of life into art that is almost never attempted and almost never succeeds when it is attempted. It's a direct confrontation of death, and not so much a victory over it as a rejection of the terms it sets. All this has been carefully planned, obviously: not the death itself, but the terms of the death. He knew his imminent death would offer the key to the album's interpretation, and already the critics who just in the past few days published reviews describing the album's impenetrability and crypticness seem like they really should have understood what was in fact going on. In the hands of a lesser artist, and a less audacious person, such an attempt at setting the terms of death would look ridiculous, vain, and pointless, and again it would probably not be attempted at all. But for David Bowie, as Diogenes Laërtius would have appreciated, the death perfectly reflects, ties off, and culminates the life. And that really is, as some philosophers say, a sort of immortality.