Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Prettiest Star

RIP, David Robert Jones

It seems off, somehow, that David Bowie should die at all, rather than be taken back up to his home planet on a beam of light and music.

I was introduced to Bowie my freshman year of college, which is on the late side; I had no particular taste of my own and needed a roommate who actually had some to make the introduction. And I was hooked immediately, dove head-first into the deep end of that pool and didn’t come up for air until graduation.

For the friend who made that initial introduction, Bowie was part of a triumvirate of cool, along with Prince and Lou Reed. Not a bad group to choose for the purpose, but their approaches to that ineffable quality of attractive distance were radically different from one another. For Reed, I think, it worked the way most of us imagine cool to work – he had it because we didn’t, because he claimed it and we couldn’t. He declared his distance, and the declaration was decisive. After all, both his look and his music were stripped down to essentials that you’d think anyone could master, and even his lyricism largely eschewed the crazy flights of fancy of his former bandmate, John Cale. And yet we weren’t as cool as he was. Prince, meanwhile, was an obviously extraordinary talent, whose persona read more as expressed than created, who wore his heart on his ruffled sleeve. He was unique because he was himself, as we are ourselves, and he couldn’t help but tell us who he is, no matter where that leads.

Bowie, though, while he told us, over and over, that he was different, that he wasn’t from here, said so not as a way of keeping us at a distance, but just as a way of letting us know that the distance was there. He’d like to come and meet us, even though he knows that, as with Zeno’s Achilles, an actual conjunction is impossible. Which is very sad. And I don’t think of cool as often being sad. Self-pitying, yes. But not sad, exactly. And yet the coolest cat of the them all was also the saddest.

And that, I guess, is the ground on which we still meet, even after establishing roots – family, community, career – when I feel that distance and need to sing across it.

A few nights ago, I saw Lazarus, the new David Bowie musical at New York Theater Workshop that loosely jumps off from Bowie’s 1976 cult science fiction film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” It wasn’t a great night of theater, partly because there wasn’t enough of a proper story, partly because too much of the staging felt static – it might have worked better as an extended music video. But partly because even as talented a performer as Michael C. Hall is going to be left floating between worlds if he tries to do a Bowie impersonation, and the script didn’t give him enough on which to build a non-Bowie persona that could inhabit the world, and the songs, that he was given.

But we abide in hope.

One day though it might as well be someday
You and I will rise up all the way
All because of what you are

Sayonara, to the prettiest star.