(Originally written for the "Me & The Starman" anthology)
There was a hand, gently, on my shoulder. “Jemima,” a voice said softly. “Wake up, baby.” I opened bleary eyes. Without my glasses and I could only just make out my fiance’s face as he leaned over me. “Good morning,” he said, with such tenderness, “David Bowie died.”
It’s a recurring pattern which says a lot about both just how crap 2016 has been and the fact that I am routinely exhausted enough to sleep well past Ben waking up next me and reading the New York Times on his laptop. The death of Alan Rickman, Brexit, terrorist attacks - all have been my tender, whispered wake-up call this year. I’ve started to refer to him as Bad News Ben. He even has a Newsnight-esque theme tune now.
But it started with Bowie, when the year was still new and pink and raw as our faces in the frigid New York air. We were sleeping on an inflatable bed in our yet to be renovated apartment. The rooms echoed with their emptiness, but after a year spent traveling around the US we were in love with the bare bones of our home and the idea of being in one place for a stretch of time.
Only a day earlier we had managed to get tickets for the pretty much sold-out run of Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop, for a performance a week later - so it turned out that we went to see this bonkers, baffling show just days after its creator’s death, when the world had learned at last that this musical was in fact a complicated, secret goodbye note from a man staring into his own oblivion.
Supposedly Lazarus was a follow-up to The Man Who Fell To Earth, but for the life of me I couldn’t work out what was going on throughout. It was thrilling, and visceral, and made great use of multimedia with a set projected onto the blank white box of the stage. At one point, as two characters chatted, a scene in which they screamed and raged and threw things at each other played behind them, a surreal and oddly jarring technique that suggested the audience shouldn’t trust a thing that was being told or shown to them. A geisha ran out from behind a screen and chased someone around the stage for a full four minutes, before disappearing off stage without a word. There was balloons and milk and rocket-ships drawn in white tape on the floor, and I haven’t a clue what any of that was about, either.
It was hard to separate the context from the show. Everyone in the audience that night was there for Bowie, a room of people full to the brim with this odd, androgynous, glitter-bomb of a man. Bowie, down to our flesh and blood and bone. So in the end, the fact that Lazarus made very little sense and, produced by anyone else would have come across only as pretentious, became an honour to witness, as weird and baffling as exciting to watch as the man himself.
And I was filled up with a tremulous feeling of loss and love, wanting only to speed across the Atlantic and hug the characters that have been there throughout my childhood into my thirties. Like I did with Bowie, I am beginning to suspect that I may have taken a lot of people in my life for granted.
Lying there on that rapidly deflating blow-up-bed, when I heard the news of his death I wondered if I was possibly still asleep, as if this moment might be a hazy, weird dream. Because that’s what David Bowie felt like, in the end: a collective fever-dream, as if the whole world had been tripping since the late sixties and conjured up this wavering, ever-changing trickster god of music.
But that wasn’t really Bowie. Bowie was glitter and heels and a blasted wide pupil so loud and weird and vivid he couldn’t have been anything but human. From another reality, most certainly - one that had built itself in the skewed future fairground-mirror image of Britain - but real nonetheless, flesh and blood and bone.
I cannot lie and say now that I was an avid David Bowie fan, but as a child of the 1980s he was a constant for me, on the radio, on my parents stereo, dancing with puppets and babies on my tv screen. He was the weird uncle of my generation that we sometimes confused for an aunt. We took him for granted. Bowie couldn’t die. Bowie was too...Bowie to die. To be stricken with something as human and indifferent as cancer? Didn’t cancer know that this was no ordinary man? Didn’t it know that it was taking on Ziggy, and Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke too? No, Bowie couldn’t die.
But he did. And I was in New York, struck suddenly with an overwhelming high-tide creep of homesickness. Bowie was dead. One day the Queen will die, and Terry Wogan (he did, not long after), and Stephen Fry and Hawkins, David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley. The peculiarly British icons, our National Treasures. Do other countries have them? Not like us. These people will die, and I will be in America, where few people will know who it is that I am grieving for.
And one day the people I love will die, and I might be here, in America. I knew that the next time I saw my family I would hug them just a little tighter.
So here I am, far from home. And here is Bowie - alive in art and fashion and music - always far from home too. Here is Bowie travelling, and changing, a man of perpetual movement, striving and pushing at the boundaries of art and reality and everything in between.
I cannot imagine what Bowie must have been thinking when creating Lazarus, when he knew that he might not be around to see it up on stage. The balloons and the Geisha and the milk-like blood still make no sense to me, months later. Even Wikipedia seems unable to decipher Lazarus, (yes, I did just google “what was David Bowie’s Lazarus musical about?”) with notes on production and critical reception but no mention of plot.
Bowie can no longer tell us what to make of Lazarus, and who knows, maybe even he couldn’t make sense of this strange and amorphous creature he’d brought forth. And maybe Lazarus is like life: without plot or tidy narrative arc, strange and beautiful and confusing and sometimes you get chased by a geisha (metaphorical or otherwise).
Bowie taught the world a lot of things in the end, just by being himself - or the mad and multitudinous versions of himself. He taught a generation to express themselves in their life, because life can be art. He taught us to work hard and prolifically at our creativity, that we can be exactly who we want to be and change that person as often as we feel the need. Ultimately, David Bowie taught us that death is inevitable, but life can be weird, and surprising, and breathtakingly beautiful.