I am drinking rum with a ghost. He’s sitting over there with all my memories beside him. He wrote the soundtrack to my life and now he’s gone. Now he’s just a ghost, a phantom. A collection of sounds and images, words and memories. But the real artist that he was has gone.
He was the starman and we are all stardust. Now his physical form has returned to the dust that he came from, the Mother Earth, waiting to be recycled. But his ghost lingers on in the words of his songs, the many songs I know so well that I won’t be able to sing again without crying. Goodbye David Bowie, you gave me something I can never repay. You gave to us all.
David Bowie was perhaps the greatest artist of the late 20th century. It’s hard to think of a greater. Very early in his career he realised that gallery art was dead, defunct, a bauble of the privileged elite; not the medium for a creative talent such as his. He was not about to sell the jewels of that creativity to the dry grasping hands of the Saatchis or the horrors whom they procure for. He would not be pimped out by shysters and charlatans to become the whore of the privileged elite.
In an era when gallery art became completely worthless, David Bowie towered. When art became the equivalent of Facebook warriors posting trite motivational slogans — ‘YOLO’ and ‘Eat the rich’, he never lost sight of what art actually is. He never succumbed to the cult of the mawkish visual pun that has become the standard of gallery art today.
Over twenty years ago, that great writer and educator Camille Paglia observed that gallery art was redundant; she proposed cinema as its contemporary successor but the fact is that cinema is corrupted by another disease, split between crass commercialism and obscurantism. There is no contemporary director able to rise above this dilemma; all are impaled on one or other of its horns. There will be no more Casablancas.
Bowie never made either of those mistakes. He avoided the dilemma, both in his music and his cinematic outings. He was not George Lucas, nor was he some art house director whose turgid oeuvre would be fawned over by the same pseudo-intellectuals who drool over Turner prize nominees. Bowie was real. Bowie was true. Bowie was never compromised, nor did he compromise, even in the dark parts of his life. He remained himself and did not give up and in doing so was an inspiration to so many. Bowie said we could be heroes and he was right; and the greatest surprise of all, perhaps, was that this hero, this giant, was such a sweet, gentle, unassuming and private man.
What we knew was not the man behind David Bowie; he was a performance artist and what we saw was what he wanted us to see. David Bowie was a work of art, an artistic conception. Right from the moment when he killed off Ziggy Stardust, Bowie masterfully directed the production of his own life, up to and including his last album and the supporting videos, which we now can see, with the chill of reality, were a dying man’s paean. Not a word did he say in public and nobody outside his immediate family knew that he was a cancer victim whose days were numbered. It is only now, after his death, that we see the last of the facets of this most surprising and multifaceted artist.
David Bowie took art, dragged it out of the navel-gazing mire of the gallery, and made it into something relevant. He proved that great and gallery do not go together. He proved that to be a significant artist in our era meant walking away from the ghastly introspection of the art school, the grasping clutches of Saatchis and their likes. He proved that to be an artist you had to be real. I owe him greatly for that. We all do.
There will not again be his like, not in our lifetimes, anyway. David Bowie was a product of the most surprising and exciting cultural revolution of the 20th century, the 1960s. That astonishing era was itself the product of other massive social initiatives, which the forces of regression have ever since tried to suppress. The moralising ayatollahs of state and church that seek absolute control over the minutiae of life have fought hard to get the genie of freedom back in its bottle and they have largely succeeded. There seems no hope now, at least in the West, for another explosion like that which projected David Bowie onto the world stage.
And therein lies the real sadness, the real reason I am drinking with his ghost. It’s not just David Bowie who has gone, it’s the ideal that he, without ever meaning to, represented: of the truly free, independent artist who could make a whole generation laugh and cry with him. Of the dream that an ordinary, weird-looking kid could spit in the eye of the rich and the greedy and make them dance to his tune. Of the notion that maybe, just maybe, we could smash through the chains and shackles that the patriarchy placed on us, of the soul-destroying conformity it demands, of the grey ugliness that it imposes. Of the notion that we all could be heroes.
When I finish this bottle of rum, the ghost will take his leave. I will never see him again. All I’ll be left with is the echoes and flickering images he left. Goodbye, David Bowie. So many of us loved you. You were our hero, not just for one day.
Also published on Medium.