David Bowie released an album and then he died.
In an act of transformation that is nothing if not pure alchemy, an interesting album coalesced into a profoundly moving work of art. In the video of “Lazarus,” Bowie is seen writhing and levitating in the most austere of hospital beds, while his Inner Self struggles to get all the words down on paper before his time expires. This is powerful, emotionally shaking stuff, but also cold: in the same way that Bowie made all of his best work, he has objectified himself and become the part that he was playing and writing about.
In another decade, the work would be hailed as the artistic achievement of an admittedly young year. Instead, I fear it is doomed to become a reflection that fades rapidly in the collective rear-view mirror of our non-culture. Now, in the middle of the twenty-teens, Bowie is becoming the victim of what he himself warned us about: the transitory nature of an aging culture, the strange changes that cannot even be faced because the world has already moved on.
With Bowie gone, it’s left to folk singer Slaid Cleaves to warn of what’s happening and what will happen: throughout his album Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, he laments:
All you see
every love and every dream
as morning dew will turn to steam
Bowie is dead, long live Bowie, blink and you missed him, he was barely here. So much has changed since David Bowie warned us about change. The Pop Culture that nourished his growth no longer even exists: because culture implies something shared, and the element of sharing is now simply another casualty in the endless quest for Novelty that has become the driving force behind everything we see, hear and do. We live in a rarified “Do-It-Yourself” culture that’s different for every individual, because it exists only in the experience and choices of that individual.
It’s all in your personal Pop-Culture Mixmaster, streaming in the wifi-ed air around us, down into your iPod and out through the earbuds. There is no job in this world more obsolete than “disk jockey” or “programming director.”
From here on in, we’re all going it alone.
Alan Rickman quickly followed Bowie down the rabbit-hole, same age, same cause of death. Although it boggles my mind to learn that there are actually people out there who liked Robin Hood (a movie that plays rape for laughs, and which boils down to — as I wrote at the time — “the Sheriff of Over The Top fighting Robin Bland to see who has the most annoying acting style”), that was just one execrable movie in an otherwise exemplary career. You’d listen to Rickman read the telephone book, wouldn’t you? I would.
The thing that’s concerning about this is that Mister Death seems to be focusing overmuch on The Good Folks. Why is Pat Robertson still alive? Why is Dick Cheney still alive? Why haven’t Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Donald Trump had their fatal coronaries yet? Why are evil-minded men gleefully lopping off the heads of people who never them did any harm, and still managing to keep their own heads attached to their shoulders?
It seems to me that Mister Death has a legitimate Job of Work to do, and that he’s been shirking. In the novels of Terry Pratchett, Death is always anxious to present himself as just another working stiff, really your pal, “it’s a bad job but someone has to do it.” And yet he takes Terry Pratchett and leaves us with the likes of Tom Clancy and James Patterson (neither of whom even write their own books anymore).
There must be MILLIONS of people out there who deserve to be dead, and yet Mister Death passes them by, waving a bony hand in passing, “That’s okay, buddy, you’re good for now, I’m on my way to take out that person who made millions of people happy.”
It’s not the same, it doesn’t hurt as much, it isn’t as personal as losing your grandparents, your mom, the beloved members of your family. I miss my poor pussyquat Patches more than I will ever miss David Bowie or Alan Rickman. But deaths out of the world we live in re-open those wounds, because they cast a stark light on the timeframe of your life. Everything, even the sadness of knowing that your world is passing on, is “Temporary as the morning dew turning to steam.”