David Bowie has died at the age of 69. He was the coolest popular musician in history, but he was not immortal, despite all appearances.

"Don't you wonder sometimes/ 'bout sound and vision?"

Like a lot of people, I've spent today reading celebrity tributes & anecdotes & old Playboy interviews, looking at New Yorker cartoons, appreciating his contribution to LGBT culture, recounting the time he called out MTV on whitewashing, and how he foresaw the future of the Internet and embraced video games.

I've clicked through emotional outpourings from Brian Eno ("I received an email from him 7 days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal... I realize now he was saying goodbye"), heartfelt remembrances about beautiful meaninglessness, and Bowie's own reflections on being a NYer ("I am not a secretive guy, but I am quite private. I live as a citizen pure and simple... I suppose wearing jeans is the nearest I get to confounding expectations"). I now know just how important he was to Marilyn Manson.

I've been watching my favorite live footage on YouTube, movie clips, late night cameos, and dug out some long lost DVDs (Best Of Bowie; David Bowie-A Reality Tour; The Man Who Fell To Earth). And I've liked as many Tweets and Instagrams as I could.

As Bowie once sang, "You're not alone/give me your hand"—it only seems right to extend that kindness to friends, acquaintances, and, most of all, strangers across the world who are feeling this loss as acutely as I am. Grieving is weird and difficult enough when you refuse to leave your apartment, let alone when you try to interact with the real world and don't really know what to say.

There's been so much written already that you should read if you care—here are a few of my favorites:

  • Dorian Lynskey wrote for GQ, "He was an avatar of pure liberation, demonstrating what a playground life could be, what spectacular things you might achieve, how many different personalities you could inhabit. Whether you were a fellow musician or just a fan - though he always believed that there was nothing "just" about being a fan - he opened doors that revealed whole new rooms you never knew existed. Why be normal when you could be everything?"
  • Annie Zaleski wrote for Slate, "As the years go by, Bowie’s records have continued to reveal more nuances, sonic effects and themes—all of which change and morph depending on a person’s age, life situation or even attitude on a particular day."
  • Bethlehem Shoals wrote for Hazlitt, "No amount of artifice or self-conscious creativity can allow us to fully escape our feelings, our humanity. It may seem like a failing of everything David Bowie tried to accomplish. But in the end, making us feel so much in spite of himself was Bowie’s greatest triumph."
  • Rob Harvilla wrote for Deadspin, "The terror of knowing what this world is about was David Bowie’s muse; transcending that world entirely was his life’s work."
  • Tom Briehan wrote for Stereogum, "Nobody else in music history did what he did. Nobody has followed a freaky muse to as many places or made so many other people think that they could do the same. There will be more blackstars, and we have Bowie to thank for that."
  • Hilton Als wrote for The New Yorker, "He was an Englishman who was sometimes afraid of Americans and fame but, on his final record, could sing “Look at me / I’m in heaven” as a way of describing where he wanted to end up, maybe, but definitely where Bowie—that outsider who made different kids feel like dancing in that difference, and who had a genius for friendship, too—had lived since we knew him."

"Here I am/not quite dying/my body left to rot in a hollow tree"

Last week, I wrote a little about Bowie's final album, the truly excellent Blackstar: "Unlike The Next Day, which seems more and more like it's plateaued as a Very Good Bowie Rock Album, [Blackstar] is an album that might seem even mightier in a few years." Well it only took three days for that to happen! As everyone has noted today, "Lazarus" as a song and video seemed to be a completely self-conscious, wildly successful attempt at Bowie going out on his own terms in the public eye. The deathbed imagery, the herky-jerky movements into the coffin-like closet, the lines about dropping his cell phone from heaven and being free "just like that bluebird," it all works.

The last two songs on the record are even more magnificent: "Dollar Days," which was written in the studio in the midst of the sessions, is a man letting go of his regrets. Every line is a step toward completion: "I've got no enemies," "If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see," "Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you," "It’s all gone wrong but on and on/The bitter nerve ends never end." And the song culminates in the repeated refrain "I'm trying to/I'm dying to," which is as much ellipses as it is conclusion.

The frenzied drums of the lush finale, "I Can't Give Everything Away," bleed over into the mix at the end of "Dollar Days," until it gives way to that gorgeous yearning harmonica sound from Low. "Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent." The hairs on my spine stand up when Ben Monder's Fripp-inspired guitar line breaks through for the cathartic, spiraling ending.

Producer Tony Visconti protected his longtime collaborator even as everything truly was changing, even with the writing on the wall of the last song on the last David Bowie album: "I don't know what the song is referring to," Visconti coyly told Rolling Stone in November. "But what he gives away is what he writes about. I think a lot of writers feel like, 'If you want to know about me, just study my lyrics.' That's why he doesn't give interviews. He's has revealed plenty in past interviews, but I think his life now is about his art. It's totally about what he's doing now."

In the end, there were some things Bowie kept to himself. And not just what he used to do at McDonald's.

Bowie evolved so often throughout his career, he seemed to have buried twice as many personas as he inhabited. He was as comfortable flirting with death imagery as he was dancing in an ill-fitting jacket with Mick Jagger. He celebrated his own dissolution and rebirth again and again—from "My Death" and Ziggy Stardust to ditching The Thin White Duke in a mound of cocaine in LA/ from his terrifyingly sober transformation into a beach-blonde MTV star to burning his ego as rhythm guitarist in the workmanlike Tin Machine; from his giddy embrace of '90s industrial and drum 'n' bass cultures to his stoic return from the desert with The Next Day in 2013.

And of course, there was his late-in-life embrace of NYC, as both just another humble resident and the inspiring figure who performed "America" at The Concert For NYC.


A lot of fans first contemplated the idea of Bowie's ultimate death during his mysterious pseudo-retirement in the mid-'00s (those death rumors continued even after his return, as this presumptive, but very worth reading, Grantland obituary thinkpiece demonstrates). I really love Andy Greene's take on why Bowie didn't give any interviews or make any major public appearances during the final decade of his life:

I think after the heart surgery he wanted to recover in private and be with his family. During that absence, he started to have a mystique about him again. It wasn't like all those interviews he did in the 1990s and early 2000s did much to advance his career, and now suddenly, he was this mysterious figure for the first time since the 1970s. I think he's realized it served him well and just stuck with it. Also, it's like his newest persona. He's like this rock-star ghost.

This was Bowie's final incarnation: rock-star ghost. Which reminds me of one of my favorite under-appreciated Bowie tunes, "Conversation Piece." It was first written in 1969, but Bowie re-recorded it for his never-released Toy album from the early '00s. While trying to spark his muse after 'Hours...', Bowie re-recorded a lot of his very early songs that only obsessive fans would have ever heard; Virgin, his label at the time, rejected the album, and a few songs from the project (including "Slip Away" and "Afraid") became the building blocks for the masterful Heathen. "Conversation Piece" ended up being unceremoniously dumped on a b-side from that record, but it deserves recognition as one of his most vulnerable tunes. "I'm a thinker, not a talker," he sings. The song might be sung from the perspective of a suicidal academic, but he gives away a little more of himself than maybe even he realized.

It's hard to focus on one thing in grief (it's hard enough to do so outside of grief, which is probably why I love making lists and ranking David Bowie albums and such things). I didn't know Bowie personally, which is likely true for most of us, but it still feels enormous. I feel scattershot, so I try to think, like Alex Balk of The Awl, of the people "for whom that person had the most meaning." I think of my friend Will, who asked me to help him get into Bowie in high school; I lent him my entire CD collection, and from what I can remember, I think it was listening to Hunky Dory together that sealed the deal (or maybe it was the Berlin trilogy, you'll have to tell me Will).

I think of my aunt, who took me to see Bowie my one-and-only time in 2003 on the Reality tour at MSG; it was by far the biggest show I had been to in my life up to that point, and it still stands as one of the best shows I've ever seen. Besides maybe Bruce Springsteen, I haven't been in the presence of any other person who could fill up a stadium that big on their own with just a grin, a flip of his hair, and a polite bow. I'll never forget the joy I felt when he launched into "Rebel Rebel," the version where he holds off on the riff for the whole first verse, to start the show.

But mostly I think about my father, who is around the same age as Bowie. He's been battling cancer on-and-off for the last four years, and 69 just seems so young to me for anyone to disappear, let alone someone who lived a thousand lives and seemed poised to live a thousand more.

I try to imagine Bowie living with cancer in recent years the way my father and family has. Since my dad was first diagnosed, it's felt like there has been a gremlin in the corner of every room. Even when he's been given good bills of health from doctors, there has been a sulking paranoia, an uncomfortable wakefulness, an aura of unease that keeps everyone on their toes. One day I think maybe we've turned the corner, the next I am getting emails about shaking out the bathroom carpet because of all the hair that has fallen off him. And I think, he can't give everything away, can he?

Frustration is the only guaranteed constancy, so it takes strength and determination to fight such a disease. I've watched the struggle up close with a few family members now, and I've seen basic day-to-day tasks become herculean. The gremlin isn't the only one in the room—effort has its own presence. It is this ability to "stay positive," to remain at one's core undemanding through procedures and misdiagnoses, while you allow doctors to inject poison into your body, while everything you know of your reality bends perilously farther and farther out of your control, that is truly heroic. Though nothing will keep us together, we can steal time, if just for one day.

And then I think of Bowie in recent years facing his own mortality (he has cancer for at least 18 months) and still reaching down to create. "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way," Visconti wrote of his old friend. "His death was no different from his life—a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."

"Bowie was still writing on his deathbed, you could say," director Ivo van Hove, who worked with Bowie on the musical Lazarus, told NPO Radio 4. "I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all."

Even at the end, Bowie did not yield, but rather, was born again in his work.

Regardless of whose pain or sickness or death it is, the best thing you can do for yourself is share it with other people. Even when you think it won't help, even when it feels hateful to talk. The world felt a little smaller, in that good way, when one friend wrote me from South America shortly after I found out: "I wonder if I'm the first person in Peru to have heard about Bowie." Another friend noted, "He's being celebrated like a king. Take solace in that."

And another said, "Yes it's sad, but it's spectacular too."