Lessons on life and death from David Bowie

By Yale Hollander

Like millions of other David Bowie fans, I awoke this past Monday to the stunning news that the legendary entertainer was dead at the age of 69 following an 18-month battle with cancer.

There’s actually quite a bit to unpack in that last sentence. To begin with, I’m not 100 percent confident labeling myself a “fan.”  I was introduced to his music in the mid-1970s when I was just a kid and my sister Shelly, some eight and a half years my senior (but don’t let her know I told you that) was a teenage girl fully obsessed by all things Bowie. Let there be no question that she was — and is — a true fan. I enjoyed those early hits – Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans blaring from the tinny speakers of my clock radio or cassette player.

When the phenomenon known as MTV came into being, Bowie tunes such as Let’s Dance, Modern Love and Blue Jean were among my favorites and I, an adolescent aspiring “prep,” was impressed by the bespoke-suited stage persona he had adopted. Bowie and Robert Palmer (another beloved musician gone too soon) were on a stylistic island resisting the wave ridden by their big-haired, leather-clad, acid-washed contemporaries of the early ’80s. I was a fan – perhaps not with a capital “F” like my sister, but certainly in the tent somewhere. 

Alright, I’m OK with calling myself a fan. Now we tackle the rest of my opening statement. 

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It’s remarkable that one can feel shock at the death of a 69-year-old human. It doesn’t seem that long ago that living into one’s mid-60s was considered “old age.” I look at pictures from my parents’ 1966 wedding. There are people in those photos who were in their mid to late 50s who looked like they were at least a couple of decades older.  

Fast forward a half-century and I see David Bowie in a pair of photographs allegedly taken on Friday, Jan. 8 – his 69th birthday and the day his (presumed) final album Blackstar was released. He looked like . . . well, he looked like David Bowie, perhaps a bit more mature of visage than Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, but nothing even close in appearance to the collection of middle-agers happily munching on my Bubbe’s chopped liver and brisket in the reception hall of the old B’nai Amoona. Resplendent in a charcoal grey Thom Browne suit and a not-at-all-ironic black fedora, Bowie bore a playful, dare I say joyous smile. He looked full of life. But he was, sadly, full of cancer, cancer that would rob him of that life not 72 hours later.

I think back to the final decade of the Cold War when the old Soviet leaders – Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko – were stiffly wheeled out for photo ops to assure the masses that all was well. This often went on for months, if not years. None of them showed even a sliver of the vitality that Bowie seemed to project in front of the camera during what would be his final days. 

Add to this the fact that Bowie was celebrating the release of a critically-acclaimed (and those kudos poured in before his death) album and a pair of music videos that he had completed in recent weeks. Here was a man in the end stages of a terminal illness who had just finished up work on a major multimedia project. One would assume his appearance three days before he breathed his last would be of a drawn, haggard shell of a man. Not Bowie. He was dapper, poised and celebratory.

So, yes, I think “stunned” is a wholly appropriate term to describe my response to the sad news.

Finally, we examine the term “battle.” As the photos I discussed above attest, there was no fatigued (in either the sartorial or physical senses) man. Perhaps he was battling behind the scenes, in the privacy he and his family succeeded in securing in an era when privacy for a mega-star (or, in Bowie’s case, mega-Starman) is rare. But it is clear from his parting gift of a very strong album, its attendant videos and his recent work on an off-Broadway musical, that he had more important things to do than to do battle. 

Perhaps I should have said he died following an 18 month journey through cancer. Over the course of David Bowie’s life, he journeyed through many experiences and  influences which resulted in his donning many different garments and producing many different works of musical and theatrical art. It appears Bowie’s last act – the Blackstar album and related projects, all of which can be interpreted as meditations on death – was just one more journey that produced a final work intended to teach us how life can be if we don’t let impending death get in the way.

Safe travels, Ziggy Stardust, and thank you for the life . . . and death . . . lessons.