It was cold and it rained at night on Heddon Street, London in 1972. Under a lamp, a man holding a guitar put his left foot down on one of the cardboard boxes beside a garbage bag. His bright blue-green suit, bleached blonde hair, and purple boots were cartoonishly out-of-place amongst the dull grey sky, the parked cars, and the junk, as if he was meant to show up in an arena full of screaming fans instead of some trash-strewn alleyway in Britain. He was going to name himself Ziggy Stardust, the glam rock messiah from outer space, and the humans of Earth didn’t know what was going to hit them.
Now, the comet has passed, and the Starman is gone.
Bowie was an innovator in music, art, and performance, with a diverse and illustrious career. He influenced nearly everyone there was to influence in the history of popular music, from Madonna to the Eraserheads, who played Ziggy Stardust at the sound check of their reunion concert. He paved the way for strangeness and individuality, resonating with the weirdos and misfits, telling them that they’re wonderful, and they’re not alone.
The mythology of David Bowie defies synthesis. It’s full of contradictions and mysteries, rightfully so. Perhaps one of the most enduring facets of his legacy is how he pushed the plurality of a supposedly singular identity. He could shift from genre to genre, exploring glam rock, pop, new wave, electronic, funk, jazz, industrial, and soul with fantastic results. His career had everything from chart-topping glam rock anthems to abstract sonic, synth-based explorations of sound, but no matter what, they were all distinctly Bowie. He was volatile, introducing more and more personas to the world, but never letting them outstay their welcome. Time ran wild, but he always knew how to stay ahead.
The iconography of Bowie’s career is full of unforgettable images. Bowie had an eye for certain fashion cues that would be forever imitated for decades: a shining circle drawn in make-up on his forehead, ever-changing hairstyles, and the immortal red and blue lightning bolt across his face. His two eyes whose colors seemed more like an aesthetic choice than the result of a fistfight when he was 15.
He broke the rules, even as a celebrity and a cultural icon. The half-Bowie, half-dog creature straight out of on the cover of the Naked Lunch-influenced Diamond Dogs, was a subject of controversy and censorship. Space Oddity was released in the July of 1969 before Apollo 11 took off, but BBC didn’t even want to play it until the crew landed back on earth safely. He declared himself gay on print in Melody Maker in 1983, only five years after homosexual acts were deemed legal in Britain, making Ziggy Stardust one of the most celebrated queer icons of all time. Self-aware but not overly reverent, and not even his own body of work was safe. The cover of 2013’s The Next Day, his first album in ten years at the time, had the cover of Heroes, one of his most iconic photos, covered by a white square with the title in plain text.
Though the people he became were imagined — even the name “David Bowie” being a pseudonym —what he stood for and what he said rang true. Ziggy Stardust was our alien rock god messiah who fell prey to the excesses of ego, fame and fortune. The Goblin King was a powerful man, isolated and lonely in his own labyrinth. Bowie turned his cocaine addiction into the detached and amoral Thin White Duke, a warning of the worst that drugs do to a man. Towards the end of his life, even his retreat from the public eye due to his ill health became a source of mystery, declining all interviews and refusing public appearances. With a career like his under his belt, he didn’t owe us anything. All we really needed was the music anyway.
David Bowie always kept everyone guessing until the very end. His last interview, and the only one for his penultimate album, The Next Day, was just a list of 42 words including the words “identity”, “transference”, miasma”, “nerve”, and the last, “mystification”. The public didn’t even know that he had cancer until he died, just two days after releasing another album. The personas that Bowie conjured up seemed so real, they made pictures of him doing normal things like riding the subway or reading the papers seem like fiction. Maybe that’s why his death seems unreal, too.
The stars look very different today. The tables have turned. The planet Earth suddenly feels small and it feels like we’re the ones sitting in a little tin can. Ground control’s wondering where the person who’s always been a step ahead of everyone else has gone to.
In hindsight, it seems like there was an innate power in him, some endless source of energy and creativity that drove him through all of the changes and struggles he’s faced in life to the very end. It’s a strength in him that outsiders have taken for granted, oblivious of the fact that he was struggling against cancer all this time. Imagine all that courage it took for him to make his life as we know it, and his death as he took it. In a world without David Bowie, it’s time, more than ever, to be brave. The Starman will always be waiting in the sky.