I awoke this morning to the news that David Bowie had died after an 18-month battle with cancer that was seemingly never made public. I say “seemingly” because I’ve never spent a ton of time keeping up with what David Bowie was doing from one minute to the next, so while it’s likely I’d have heard the news that David Bowie had cancer, it’s certainly possible that I might have missed it.
The news didn’t hit me like it has hit many. I like David Bowie and everything, but he isn’t George Harrison to me. That doesn’t mean he isn’t as talented or influential or important in the history of rock music as George Harrison. It just means that I have a deeper personal connection to the Beatles than I do to Bowie.
But the news certainly did hit a number of people in that personal space inside each one of us that is created when we discover music, and gets filled throughout our formative years when a song or an artist or an album comes to define how we think of ourselves at that point in our lives.
And that space is an amazing space.
It’s completely personal in that mine was created and filled by songs and artists that are unique to me and that music combines with each other and with me to build a meaning that that music by itself, or even in similar combinations, could never mean to anyone else.
But it’s also universal. While I don’t connect to the same songs in the same way that you do, I know there’s a space inside you that is filled just as full and is just as vital to you as mine is to me.
According to my Facebook page and my Twitter feed, I know a lot of people with a Bowie-sized hole in that space.
Which isn’t surprising. Bowie was certainly a massive figure in music over the last 40+ years.
What was surprising to me was the number of conversations I had about David Bowie today with total strangers. There were more of these conversations than I’ve had about Bowie with my friends throughout my entire life, and most of those involve his appearance on Extras making fun of Ricky Gervais.
I wasn’t singing Bowie songs. Or wearing a Bowie t-shirt. Or reading an article about his death. I was just sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room and at least three people just looked at me and basically said, “Wow, huh? Bowie.”
And these interactions made two things clear to me.
- I look like a David Bowie fan. I must, otherwise, that’s a strange thing to say to a total stranger.
- David Bowie made people want to seek a connection with their fellow man. So much so that when he died, people felt the need to share this loss with people they’d never met before in their lives.
That’s pretty amazing.
And it’s unique.
I didn’t have that experience with any other musician who died in 2015. Not Lemmy (from Motörhead). And Not B.B. King.
The death of Adam Yauch was close, largely I think because the impact of The Beastie Boys on other musicians and creative people was even greater than their popular appeal, immense though that was. And this seems to be true for Bowie as well.
But not even the biggest loss is really comparable to this. When Michael Jackson died what seemed to be happening everywhere I went was people blasting Thriller or Bad or Off the Wall from every radio they could get their hands on. Cars with windows rolled down, bouncing to the bass line from Billie Jean and people very publicly remembering how much they enjoyed the King of Pop (and also, a little, how weird he was, but less than you’d think considering how much we talked about how weird he was when he was alive).
Bowie seems to be different.
And best I can figure it comes down to this.
Michael Jackson was big in ways few have ever been (The Beatles and Elvis. That’s pretty much the whole list). He was wildly popular and insanely successful. The music and the impact of Michael Jackson filled the sky.
Bowie was important. And influential. And amazing. He was incredibly popular and successful. But while Michael Jackson’s impact filled the sky. The music and the impact of David Bowie filled the ocean. His impact was huge and visible, but it ran deep and it flowed in unseen places.
And its the hidden, less obvious, nature of his impact that is prompting people to look at strangers and say, “Wow, huh? Bowie.”