The Last Dance in the Labyrinth.
“It’s only forever, not long at all.”
David Bowie said that as the villain in “Labyrinth,” a film that wasn’t well received at the time of release, but is pretty legendary now. Like Bowie himself, the creativity in that film is huge in scope, and hard to take in all at once. I like to think that David Bowie felt that way about his passing…that it was only forever, not long at all.
There are countless reasons to lament the recent loss of David Bowie and just as many to celebrate his brilliant life. I’m going to do a little bit of both here, True Believers. This wasn’t the way that I wanted to return to the Science Fantasy setting, but given the grim reality since Sunday…it seemed to be the way to go.
I have a huge amount of his music in my poor little iPod. I have cover tunes of his music, because I love a fair amount of it just that much, that another person’s interpretation is interesting. Oddly, he just released a new album, “Blackstar,” on January 8th, just before he lost his final battle with cancer. It wasn’t lost on me that one of the earliest color posts on this site was titled with one of his lyrics (We Can Be Heroes), and that the protagonist’s initial uniform was a black star on a white t-shirt. Bowie’s album art for “Blackstar” was a black star on a white background.
Jennifer Connelly was the lead in “Labyrinth” nearly 30 years ago, and on Monday she spoke to the press about working on the film with David Bowie. At that point, Bowie was pretty huge, and she was just at the beginning of her career as an actress. “I met David Bowie when I was 14 and he became a hero to me — because he was an artist, and because he was a genius who had the time to be kind,” Connelly said in a statement to EW. “I’d never met such an extraordinary artist before, and I haven’t since — the world will be a greyer place without him.”
Of his work, those previously mentioned studio albums, Bowie had this to say: “I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go.” He certainly did that, being a major a figure in popular music for over five decades, and was considered by both critics and other musicians as an innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. Bowie’s impact, as described by biographer David Buckley, “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day.” Music reviewer Brad Filicky wrote that over five decades, Bowie was “a musical chameleon, changing and dictating trends as much as he has altered his style to fit, influencing fashion and pop culture.
I think it’s safe to say, by those third party assessments, that he succeeded in “contributing to the culture.”
Bowie’s innovative songs brought a new dimension to popular music in the early 1970s, strongly influencing both its immediate forms and its subsequent development. A pioneer of glam rock, Bowie, according to music historians, has joint responsibility with Marc Bolan for creating the genre in the first place.
As described by John Peel, “The one distinguishing feature about early-70s progressive rock was that it didn’t progress. Before Bowie came along, people didn’t want too much change.” Buckley says that Bowie “subverted the whole notion of what it was to be a rock star”, with the result that…”after Bowie there has been no other pop icon of his stature, because the pop world that produces these rock gods doesn’t exist any more. … The fierce partisanship of the cult of Bowie was also unique—its influence lasted longer and has been more creative than perhaps almost any other force within pop fandom.”
Most importantly, to me, is what David Bowie stood for. He was weird, he was odd…and he defined cool. He made it not just okay to be weird, to the the odd one, he made it something that was a cool unto itself. He put the spotlight on the outsider, the unusual, in a way that the cookie cutter pop stars prior to him did not. Growing up in the seventies and eighties, that was incredible. It was like he was the emblem, the icon of what was inside all kinds of people like me, the personification of glam, of sci fi, of music fans and theatre geeks all rolled into one.
David Bowie was all of that. Sometimes I don’t realize how emblematic he was of my youth, and of my experiences. The number of times I’ve been upset, and a song by him has come on, and just SPOKE to me in the way that he intended music to…is just plain hard to count. The number of times I’ve sung along with friends to his music, or in the car…truly countless. Honestly, many years ago, in one of the single worst moments of my life, “Under Pressure” with Queen came on the radio. I remember the moments, singing along in that dark moment with him:
“And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
That was comforting then, and still is now. Seriously…in that moment…my feelings just didn’t hurt as much, because David Bowie and Queen seemed to share it through their art. I think, at then end of the day, that’s the true power of music, or art of any kind. Bowie said that, “On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.”
There’s no time that I hear that song, even today, that I don’t deal with ghosts. Since the weekend, one more ghost than before.
“What I do is I write mainly about very personal and rather lonely feelings, and I explore them in a different way each time. You know, what I do is not terribly intellectual. I’m a pop singer for Christ’s sake. As a person, I’m fairly uncomplicated.” That was his appraisal of his craft, his art, and I think really why it seemed to speak to so many of us, to the “outsiders.” He shared his personal feelings, his trials with us…and through that, bound us together, and with him. He had the same problems as that lonely kid in high school, but looked completely cool having them.
For my whole life, Bowie and his work have been there, as influence and art. For the first time ever…he isn’t. It’s been jarring, and very upsetting, in sudden intervals of emotion. I wonder at modern pop music, and ask myself if my students have any idols that speak to them in this fashion, It’s a different world with different art…I just don’t know. I hope, that through my efforts as a teacher, I’m somehow able to connect them to things that speak to them, in much the same way that my teachers and I found common ground through rock music and pop culture.
He said at one point, “Strangely, some songs you really don’t want to write.” The same could be said about this post. The second I heard that another one of my heroes was gone…I kind of had to write it, to express in some form how much his work brought to my life. Also…to process my feelings and my ideas about it, to work through them. A huge amount of the comics industry has been posting, drawing, and tweeting on the subject…I’m not unique. It just takes time to draw and color.
“I believe that I often bring out the best in somebody’s talents,” he said about collaboration with other artists. He certainly brought out the best in me at times, and in countless others. I thought that my tribute demanded a bit of that…a stretch of my “chops” as an illustrator and colorist.
Apparently, James Gunn wanted David Bowie, the Starman himself, for a cameo in “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.” There were some talks about it…but obviously, it’s not meant to be. He also said that, at the least, Bowie’s music may make an appearance in the film since he can’t. We’ll just have to explore the stars without him, old cassette tapes in our stereos, taking his awesomeness with us in our hearts and minds.