There’s a story that gets no older in the telling, and it goes like this. There was once a man who fell to Earth. He came from an unknown star somewhere on the outer spiral edge of the imagination, and he saw that the people of this angry little blue planet lacked glitter in their lives. He saw that this world was full of strange, lost children who needed, more than anything, a story to hang on to, a legend to dance to. So he decided to become an idol.
And there was once a kid who felt like an alien, a kid who was lost and ashamed and wondering if it was worth the effort to grow up, to make art, to live in a world that seemed so grey. This kid heard the music, the first brazen chords of it, and realised that it was OK to be an alien. That it was OK to be strange. That nobody could touch you as long as you owned life fully and proudly and kept your eyes on the stars.
And this kid, who might have been a boy or a girl or something else altogether, put on some make-up and fixed up their hair and went out to find the others who were quite as alien as they were. That kid was me, of course, but that kid was probably you, too, or one of your parents, or any of the countless millions of us with Labyrinth posters stuck to our walls and sparkle dust in our hair. The mythos of David Bowie is more than the music, though it’s still goddamn good to dance to.
This week, every paper on this angry blue planet is reporting on the death of David Bowie, but they are in error. David Bowie did not pass away at the age of 69 two days after releasing a final, terrifying album. That was a man called David Robert Jones, who was not from space, but from Brixton. It’s important that we keep the two distinct, because it’s the only way to mourn properly.
There was a man called David Robert Jones who started out as a moderately successful rock singer before achieving fame with various creative alter egos. There was a man called David Jones who had a galloping cocaine habit and almost certainly had sex with an underage girl while his wife was in the next room. There was a man called David Jones who had human flaws and made terrible mistakes and inhabited a body that sickened and eventually died. And there was a legend called David Bowie with the face of an extraterrestrial demon who came down to push culture forward and has now returned to his home planet. It’s all right to be heartbroken about that.
This is going to keep happening. The great artists and iconoclasts of the 20th century will keep on suffering the inconveniences of mortality, leaving us to reflect on the legacy they left and what it means for us. Part of the shock when an icon dies is the reminder that there was a real person under all that make-up, behind the lights and the vice-tight press operation, a person who had to get up in the morning and go to the bathroom like the rest of us. Our icons always let us down by being human. Too often, they let us down further by being men of a certain generation. We have still not come to terms with the fact that even starmen can sometimes be monstrous.
When a celebrity dies, fans are often castigated for engaging in “performative grief”. In this case, performative grief is the only kind of grief that is at all appropriate. On the day he died, kids were lighting candles in Brixton and painting lightning bolts on their faces in Berlin. The news was scattered with ten thousand hagiographies, drifting like confetti on to an empty stage. And that’s all right. It’s all right to feel that you have lost something irreplaceable. It’s all right for that to be profoundly different from the private loss that the family has suffered.
Because while his family mourns the man, the rest of us are mourning an idea, an idea that is all the more poignant because it changed the world forty years ago and became, in the process, less of a big thing. Any teenager painting Ziggy Stardust make-up on their cheeks this week can tell you that it’s no longer quite so shocking for a young person to be openly bisexual; that boys gyrating in glitter eyeliner are no longer quite so terrifying to the status quo. The zeitgeist that Bowie created had a lot to do with that – and that’s why, like so many artists, the work was most important in his earlier years, when his mythopoesis was entirely new.
The triumph of great artistic success cannot be separated from that tragedy: that if you manage to change the culture, if you’re lucky, you get to live in the world you’ve made, watching the next generation build newer and more daring things on the foundation you fought for. That’s what we’re grieving when we grieve for David Bowie, or any of his generation of baby-boomer geniuses whom we have lost and will continue to lose over the next decade. We are mourning our younger selves, individually and as a society. We are mourning a time that is now past, and considering how we will live up to its ideals and rectify its mistakes. The stars, as a modern prophet once observed, look very different today.
How do you mourn a legend? You don’t. Not really. The legend continues, a little chip of it in all of us. Until I saw the obituaries, I never truly believed that Bowie existed. He made more sense as a heady legend invented by some weird kid to make all of us weird kids feel braver. Which, in a way, is what he was, and what he remains. If we want to do right by those weird kids, and if we want to do right by David Bowie, all we can do is carry on making art, carry on finding ways to survive this strange, brutal culture by taking our own strangeness in both hands and making it shine.
There is still time for heroes, as long as we have the courage to become them. After all, we’ve got to think about what sort of world we’re leaving for Keith Richards.
Laurie Penny is a contributing editor of the New Statesman
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie