An Insufficient Response to the Death of a Great Artist / by thom caraway

Dear Mr. Jones,

I won’t say I’m the saddest, or that you were my favorite artist. I don’t own all your albums, I haven’t read books about you. But maybe of all the artists I’ve ever thought about, you were among the few who, even not being an intimate fan of your work, I was just glad existed in the world. You didn't influence my art, I don't think, but my concept of what art does. You always made us listen, made us look harder, closer. You changed and made us change.

I’ll admit my first appreciation of you was superficial. I was born in 1973, and there were few adults in my childhood who didn’t call me, at some point, or often, Major Tom. It was nice to have some significance built into my name for me, so thanks. I was also a very thin blond boy and young man, perhaps even, when my hair was long in a conservative town, a bit androgynous. With somewhat abnormal, even severe facial structure. I thought I was odd at least. I didn’t really look like other boys my age, so in the 80s, when I’d see you in music videos, I thought, well, that guy is odd looking and everyone loves him. I felt less awkward about feeling odd. If I’d been attuned enough to know your Thin White Duke persona, I certainly would have adopted it. But as with many things, I had a hard time seeing past myself. And of course, not everyone loved you. Upon your death, I imagine there will be small-minded responses of something like satisfaction. One less of “those people” in the world, whoever “those people” might be. I know plenty of folks who are perfectly willing to write off an artist like Willie Nelson, because for so long he advocated so stridently for marijuana-usage. And I’m sure folks like that aren’t willing to forgive you for loving whoever you loved, or even for looking like you looked. You weren’t a proto-typical Man, certainly not by American standards, if such a thing ever existed (and if it did, it was likely John Wayne, who was of course just a character). But, you know. Fuck those people, that attitude, the kind of culture that produces or supports it.

It always appeared as though you said, without asking anyone or looking around at what others were doing, “This is what’s cool.” And then it was. It was probably the case then as well, though it seems more pronounced now, that such daring is increasingly rare. It had to have been rare then, as well, too? One need look no further than any avenue of pop culture to see the sort of overwhelming sameness that is the antithesis to your youness. I’m not sure there is any such thing as a quintessential David Bowie. The best thing going about in tribute to your life is a gif of 15-20 chronological iterations of you. And I can place a song I love of yours in most of those iterations. And they were all different. I love “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and “Let’s Dance” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” and “Strangers When We Meet” and “Black Star.” And they are all so different! I don’t know how you managed it, to remain innovative, good, and you at the same time.

In my early thirties, I imagined starting a magazine. Each issue would feature an extensive interview with one artist, and some corollary articles. History, discography, etc. Mostly it was a way for me to talk to great artists. Yours was the first name I came up with, really the only one. I spent weeks imagining the interview, what friends we’d become. I might’ve been backstage with you during the awards show when you performed with Arcade Fire, which remains one of my favorite collaborations or guest appearances ever (your cameo as Tesla in The Prestige is up that list as well). Of course, the magazine never went further than my head, and I doubt even if it had flown, I wouldn’t have had the courage or connections to assail your walls of celebrity or privacy. It wouldn’t have been much of a pitch. “Yeah, would you be willing to let me, you know, just hang out with you for a week or sixteen? I’ll ask you some questions. No, nobody knows or cares who I am. The magazine doesn't exist. What do you say?”

I’m listening to “changesonebowie” on vinyl right now. There’s that moment in “Young Americans” when the back-up singers sing, sort of parenthetically, “I heard the news today, oh boy.” I love that. The song didn’t need it, it barely had anything to do with anything. You just liked the way it sounded, I think. I love that you didn’t just riff or sample other artists. It was always homage. The duets, the collaborations, the cameos. You always seemed like you were having the best time. Bing Crosby, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Queen, Annie Lennox in tribute to Freddie Mercury, Trent Reznor, Arcade Fire. So many others. At the end of “Wake Up,” how were you the one saying, “Arcade Fire, ladies and gentlemen!” like they were the big deal? (I just had to change the verb tenses in those sentences.)

You just loved the music. Not your music; music. Art. Life. I think maybe they were inseparable for you. I think you loved it when others did beautiful things, even if you were the other. There were so many personas, so many versions of David Bowie, and behind them all was Davey Jones, a guy who was maybe a little odd, and who appeared to find every way he could to make that just fine. You made that oddness, my oddness, everyone's oddness the whole show. You weren’t afraid to fail, or at least you weren't afraid of risking failure. 

More than anything, perhaps, you risked the story. Your characters developed, even if they only lived in one song. Every song, every album, every appearance was a story. And there was such gorgeous joy in the telling of those stories. Thank you for that. Thank you for everything.

Love,

thom

a fan