Back in November I wrote about the Day of The Dead, and grief and loss. It felt like I’d been writing a lot about those subjects in 2015, so as I wrote that piece I made a silent pact with fate. By writing about this one more time, I’m drawing a line under 2015, and 2016 can be a year where I don’t lose anyone I care for, or any musicians who matter to me, ok?
Sadly, fate has a way of ignoring this kind of pact, unspoken or otherwise. Little did I know however, how quickly 2016 would fail to keep its’ side of the deal. The first thing I heard when I turned on the radio on Monday morning was “this is not a hoax” and the news we had lost David Bowie to cancer. I was surprised at just how upset I was. I’m not usually affected so badly by the deaths of musicians, and I can’t claim to be Bowie’s biggest superfan. But somehow this was shocking, significant and hugely sad.
I thought of my memories of Bowie. My formative musical years, were the early to mid 1990s, which coincided with Bowie’s grunge and drum n bass periods. I think it’s fair to say that these were not Bowie’s peak creative years (although I retain a fondness for some songs from the era, such as Little Wonder, below) so I didn’t quite grasp how important he really was, even though I read about his influence and history in the music press often enough.
Glastonbury 2000 was my moment of Bowie revelation. I nearly didn’t even watch his set (god knows who I had been planning to see instead), but changed my mind at the last minute and headed to join the thousands and thousands of people at the Pyramid Stage. I was rewarded with one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, as classic song followed classic song, almost the entire crowd bellowing along to every word. During the set I had the thought “oh, so this is where the bands I like got all their ideas from” (Suede, I’m looking at you in particular).
From then on I delved into his back catalogue a little deeper, finding out what a diverse, innovative and influential artist he really was. But he still wasn’t such a huge part of my life in many ways. He kept mainly out of the public eye, not feeling the need to maintain a huge media presence and his new material was sporadic. He’d crop up in a cameo in Zoolander, or championing some new band (he never lost his love for new music. Pixies, Goldie, The Arcade Fire and TV on The Radio are just a few of the bands younger than him who he covered or collaborated with).
So, I didn’t have too many direct memories of Bowie, compared to those who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, but he never seemed to be too far from my mind, especially since I met my wife back in 2009. (David Bowie I Love You) Since I was 6 by Brian Jonestown Massacre became one of our favourite songs. I remember dancing to Let’s Dance at an alternative Eighties night in Brighton, and wandering down the street singing “Blue, blue, electric blue” on another night out.
Still, Bowie was mainly on the periphery of my life, so I’m surprised my grief at finding he’s gone, just as I was surprised at the impact it had on almost everyone I know, young to old. He touched all our lives, from my wife’s grandma who she remembers singing Starman in the kitchen, to my friend’s toddler who can do the handclaps in Space Oddity already. I think he was just one of those people who we always expected to be there, until suddenly he was not. It felt more like the loss of a family member than the death of a celebrity.
So I spent Monday at work moping, with my headphones on, listening to his music. Even now I discovered songs I wasn’t familiar with before (My Death, his cover of a Jacques Brel song, is astounding, and I previously had no idea he’d released a live album from Santa Monica, where my wife grew up). I then went home and spent the evening lamenting with my wife, talking of our Bowie experiences. I was just about to go to bed when the house phone rang. A phone call at that time is rarely a good thing, and so it proved.
Whereas the death of Bowie had felt like the loss of a family member, this actually was. It was my mum calling to say my grandpa had died. He was nearly 90, had been unwell for some time, and no longer really knew who I was. I can’t claim we were extremely close even before his illness, but he was still my grandpa. Many of my happiest childhood memories also belonged to him, even he could no longer remember them himself. Somehow a day which had begun with such bad news had ended with even worse.
Not the way I had hoped or expected 2016 to begin, but I take comfort in the fact that both Bowie and my grandpa lived remarkable lives, in their own very different ways (my grandpa grew up in Poland during the 1920s and 1930s, which may give you a clue). Cliche it may be, but the only lesson we can take from this is to enjoy and appreciate our lives and live them to the full, as one day, be we 49 or 69 or 89, they will end.