You have to hand it to David Bowie. He certainly knew how to be the party—and how to break up the party. On Sunday night, just as Hollywood celebrities were arriving at their post-Golden Globe awards events, the laughter reportedly died down and a hush fell across the revelers: Bowie was dead at 69 from cancer.
David Bowie turned toasts into conversations about memento mori.
His death stunned everybody. Just a month earlier, he had appeared at the opening of his off-Broadway show Lazarus, and, as always, he looked great. Three days earlier, he released his most ambitious record in recent memory—a progressive jazz tour de force. We had seen him in brand new music videos which bewildered us.
To the art world, he seemed transcendent. In film, he held multiple generations transfixed. To fans, he gave hope that you could always reinvent yourself, that you need not stay mired in the same role or life phase. In the cartoon The Venture Bros, he appeared simply as “The Sovereign,” a benevolent force for good working mysteriously behind the scenes of the cosmos. Arguably no celebrity meant this much to that many people since John Lennon.
Perhaps most of all, in death, Bowie taught us something about how to die. He did not make his fight with cancer a publicity spectacle. He died with dignity, in quiet, with his family.
To the Christian community, however, the early Bowie initially seemed to some like an existential threat. His gender-bending characters in the ’70s on albums like Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust had pastors and church leaders alarmed.
To Larry Norman—the Jesus Movement rock icon—Ziggy represented the lostness of the new generation of music. On Only Visiting this Planet, his album on MGM records recorded under the supervision of George Martin, Norman quipped, “Alice is a drag queen; Bowie’s somewhere in between. Other bands are lookin’ mean. Me, I’m trying to to stay clean. I don’t dig the radio. I hate what the charts pick. Rock & roll may not be dead, but it’s getting sick.”
Even the critically savvy British rock journalist Steve Turner, a Christian who had written profiles on Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, and many others, saw nothing of permanence in Bowie’s work. He wrote in 1978: “I can’t see us humming Bowie tunes in 20 years or even 5 years’ time.”
In a piece written in 2013 entitled “The Hole in Bowie’s Soul,” Turner revisited that idea, advancing the thesis that Bowie’s legacy was about style, not substance. Unlike contemporaries like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Pete Townshend, Bowie stood for little more than selling himself. Politically and philosophically, Turner implies, The Thin White Duke was innocuous at best or horribly misguided at worst. Religiously, he dabbled early on in everything from the occult to Buddhism. Not good.
But such a harsh assessment of Bowie seems not in keeping with the actions of a man who, at a key turning point in history, rallied against totalitarianism. In 1987, Bowie returned to West Berlin, where he once lived and recorded some of his best work. With his back to the Berlin Wall, he belted out “Heroes” with his band, crying out for liberty to the crowd in German. Thousands of East Berliners pressed up against the other side of the wall to hear him, and they subsequently began vigorously protesting against the Communist regime.