Here is what we can learn from David Bowie’s magnificent life
by Marie Baleo
We all have a David Bowie story. The “Man who fell to earth” crashed into my life one afternoon in 1997—I was seven years old. As is always the case in stories involving Bowie, this sentence ends with: and life would never be the same again. I was home with my family on a Sunday, and my parents set out to repaint our upstairs bathroom. One of them brought out Bowie’s Singles Collection and pushed play. For a daunting few seconds, I couldn’t make out a sound. But then I heard it—the slow build-up of the acoustic guitar, followed by the drums, and finally, a voice.
It was Space Oddity, and it was the exact moment when, surrounded by the intoxicating fumes of fresh paint, I fell in love with Major Tom.
As the rest of the album played out, I heard something new: limitless possibilities, worlds one could not see, yet more colorful than those one might encounter on canvases or film. Through these different universes, one common thread: the thin, honest voice of an extraordinary man who flawlessly bent and broke all boundaries. A brilliant mind that lived in a dimension of its own, yet who was willing and able to put his visions into music, for our invaluable benefit.
Over the next twenty years, I discovered the breadth of David Bowie’s talent and the extent of his hold over people’s imagination. His music, over five long decades, has taken on very personal meanings for millions of us, with one constant: the love and gratitude we feel for that strange-looking, bright-haired silhouette, who looked neither like a boy or a girl but like what a human of the future might resemble.
Writing about Bowie’s untimely death on January 10, 2015 is complicated and difficult, primarily because many of us fans secretly believed it could never happen, but also because it’s hard to make sense of the amount of grief many have been experiencing over a man we never met and never talked to—grief usually reserved for family and friends.
Bowie left behind enough artistic ventures to hold us captivated for a lifetime. It is for each of us to discover that body of work and find out what it means to us. It would take days and pages to explain why David Bowie meant so much to so many, and commenters, journalists and friends of the man have already done a wonderful job of it—read, for example, Tony Visconti’s moving tribute to the man he worked with for decades.
But Bowie was not just a spectacular artist; by all accounts, he was also a tremendous human being. So, at a time when self-deprecation and comparison with our peers fuels our self-development frenzy, I would like to offer respite from the usual “Be successful/get up at 4am to be more productive/give up food for kale smoothies” listicles. Instead, I suggest that we look together at the brilliant, unique life of David Bowie and see what it can teach us on how to be truer to ourselves.
On hard work and the virtues of not giving up
Have you ever heard of Liza Jane, by Davie Jones and the Queen Bees? Neither has anyone else. Liza Jane was Bowie’s first single, and it went entirely unnoticed upon its release in 1964. It would be another five years before young Bowie, aged 22, lucked out with Space Oddity. But even widely praised Space Oddity itself would not climb to the top of the charts until 1973, eleven long years after Bowie formed his first band. Lack of recognition never seemed to faze Bowie, who persevered until the world finally picked up Major Tom’s call.
Looking at everything David Bowie has left us, it would seem as though artistic expression just poured out of him. But in fact, Bowie once noted that he had never had a particular facility for the arts. On the contrary, he always felt he needed to work very hard at it—and so he did.
Until the very end of his life, Bowie remained true to his strong work ethics. Gravely ill and fully aware that he may not have much time left, Bowie gave his all and produced critically-acclaimed album Blackstar, while the play he scripted, Lazarus, debuted last December to rave reviews.
In this regard, we could all learn from Bowie’s example: no genius or talent will ever amount to anything without relentless work. You owe yourself to try and find out how far you can get if you give it everything you have, and if you show as much resilience as you can muster in the face of failure.
On being oneself remaining immune to others’ consultations
Bowie never pleased fans of labels. He has not been dead for a week and already scores of articles are trying to plaster labels over him: he was gay, no, he was straight; actually, wait, wasn’t he bisexual? He was such a promiscuous womanizer (oh, how the Daily Mail respects the deceased), but also, did you know he screwed Mick Jagger? Bowie spent his entire life watching his contemporaries try (and fail) to shove his looks, behaviors and work into neat little boxes. He was always the talk of town and never gave a flying fudge. Did he want to wear outrageous blue eye-makeup? Yes. Did he want bright orange hair? Yes. Did he want to wear dresses and look like a woman? Yes. Did he do all these things? A hundred times yes. After all, he was, at age 17, the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired men.
Bowie’s great strength, it appears, was that he always knew what he wanted, from his appearance and self-presentation to the substance of his work itself. That vision and determination helped him ignore the haters. In turn, this immunity from others’ opinions of what he should be and do helped Bowie lead the spectacular life that was his.
On embracing ch-ch-ch-changes and curiosity
Bowie was most famous for his music, but his interests and endeavors cast a much wider net. Bowie was a prolific painter, even unsure, at first, of whether he should pursue music or painting. He wrote and directed plays and acted in films like Labyrinth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, and even … Zoolander. But, unbeknownst to many, he also launched several business and tech initiatives (BowieNet, his own Internet Service Provider, and even a financial product, the Bowie bond!). Bowie was the very example of creativity and entrepreneurship transcending any one domain.Throughout his life, Bowie signed onto dozens of innovative projects when everyone else seemed unsure or downright skeptical, confidently following his own aspirations only.
Physically, Bowie was a chameleon: from androgynous, scandalous Ziggy Stardust to impossibly handsome Major Celliers, from unfortunate-late-90s-frosted-tips Bowie to Button Eyes, Bowie had a hundred looks to go with his hundred personas. He was an avid reader, endlessly curious about other artists and other cultures. The influences that run through his work are far-ranging and diverse, from Little Richard (“I had heard God”, Bowie said of his early encounter with Tutti Frutti) to Japanese kabuki costumes, Bowie was open to influences, recognized beauty and quality everywhere it found itself, and willingly built upon the work of others to bring forth his own, novel, art. His persona, his own self, seemed to evolve, never refraining itself, never holding back on what he might want to become or could become.
In our current era of personal branding, it is very tempting to label oneself, to hold forth one reassuring, well-framed identity. Think of how willingly we submit ourselves to Twitter’s injunction to describe ourselves in “bios” of 140 signs. But by thinking of our lives and personalities in such formulaic ways, we may be missing out on entire sides of ourselves. Bowie would do whatever (and I mean WHATEVER) interested him, no matter how foreign, unusual, or out of character—and so should you. If something sparks your interest, no matter how out of left field it seems, do yourself a favor and pursue it. You might know nothing about painting, playing an instrument, or the language spoken in a foreign country you’ve never been to, but there must be a reason you keep thinking about it, so why not try? Disruption is the salt of life.
On art for art’s sake, and disregarding public approval
Bowie held the firm belief that one should never make art with sales or public approval in mind, as the resulting creation would surely be subpar and stray from one’s artistic vision. As he once told The Word: “All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience. My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.” Instead, Bowie’s albums and work were a byproduct of long bursts of creativity, a personal quest, the result of curiosity and a mix of influences. Bowie seemed to make art for himself, not for anyone else. Not only did this uncompromising mindset produce masterpieces, it probably felt a lot better than trying to craft what he thought the public might like to hear or see.
On elegance, fairness and kindness
Bowie was the epitome of elegance. Yes, I can already hear the sound of trolls deriding bright makeup and sparkling spandex as the polar opposite of class, but the man’s demeanor, his kindness, politeness, and discreteness were the marks of an elegance that is fast going extinct. Even at the height of his career, adored by millions, Bowie never let it go to his head. Instead, he was known to be courteous and friendly, until his very last and probably very difficult days.
In the week since his death, a video has made the rounds: Bowie asking MTV, in 1983, why Black artists were granted so little air time. Bowie used his fame and influence to bring attention to the plight of indigenous Australians in the video for his smash hit Let’s Dance in 1983. He was even credited and thanked by the German Foreign Office for the part his performance of Heroes by the Berlin Wall played in the German reunification. He was unafraid of (and even thoroughly enthusiastic about) taking a stand for what he believed in, and speaking out when he disagreed. These are values we should all hold onto, living, as we are, in a time of persistent gender, racial, social and economic inequality.
More than the puzzling lyrics and the high-pitched notes, the unmistakable style and the saxophone, people loved the path David Bowie set forth, the example he spent his life becoming. In each one of us is a similar character: a free spirit, independent, conscious and proud of who they are, disrespectful and oblivious to social expectations and pressure. Always kind, and thus endlessly, effortlessly elegant, Bowie inspired us to be androgynous, to be openly vulnerable, to say yes to change, to accept the different personalities that coincide in us, to come to terms with anxiety, mortality, depression. Bowie taught us lessons in humanity. There won’t be another like him.
With his life, a long adventure ends. I had thought life and Bowie were inseparable. But an old mystery has been solved: my favorite deity, a mythical creature whose music and presence has walked me and so many others through every stage of life, had been mortal all along. While we had all been speculating that he might be an alien, he had once again, in true Bowie fashion, playfully deceived us. What he had really been doing all this time was to surpass us all in the task of living an achingly truthful and extraordinary human life. And in so doing, he had become the most unique artist any of us would ever see, the “star” the word was invented for. Not a pop star, not a marvel star, not a film star: a Blackstar.