Culture Trips

‘His life is a rebuke to cynicism’: what five years without David Bowie has taught us | David Bowie

On 11 January 2016, in pitch darkness, I turned on the radio at 7am and heard the news that David Bowie had died. I switched rapidly between stations hoping to find a parallel universe in which he was still alive, but there were only the halting voices of presenters choking back tears alongside snippets of Bowie’s incomparable musical world, collapsing into collective grief.

My first reaction was to think magically: “But he can’t be dead!” Bowie had just released his 25th album, Blackstar, only three days previously, on his 69th birthday. His official website had recently posted new photographs of him, sharp-suited and yelling playfully into the camera. Occasional news of what the critic Paul Morley called Bowie’s “cheering, ongoing life” – especially in the decade after Bowie suffered a heart attack on stage in 2004 – had been enough to reassure me and his millions of fans that he was still around. Not that he owed us anything, but a world that still had David Bowie in it couldn’t be all bad. And now he was gone from it.

After the hallucinatory grimness of the last five years, the illusion that everything would go to pot when he died has at times felt more like a premonition. Five Years, written in 1971, imagines a population deranged by the news – delivered by a “news guy” who “cried so much his face was wet” – that “Earth was really dying” and we’d all be extinct within half a decade.

Waking up to the early news most mornings since that day in 2016 has, after all, induced similar feelings. “My brain hurt like a warehouse / It had no room to spare,” sings Bowie as Ziggy, as if he’d already travelled through time and seen the state of things. The writer Dan Fox, author of Pretentiousness and Limbo, two books about culture and creativity, remembers “listening to Five Years a month or two after Trump got elected, and really feeling the apocalyptic despondency in that song”.

However, as he asserts, Bowie still offers a way out of that despondency. “He was the greatest art student of the 20th century,” Fox says. “He never stopped learning, never stopped being curious. I think you can use his work as a model: don’t be afraid to admit ‘I don’t know’, and go and find someone who does.”

Curator Beth Greenacre, who managed Bowie’s art collection for 16 years until his death, told Harper’s Bazaar in 2016 that he “collected ideas, thoughts … they all fed into his life. He would look at one artist and it would lead him to another artist, which would lead him to a book, which would lead him to a theory, which would lead him to a philosophical text, which would then lead him back to another artist.”

That’s the thing: life, for Bowie, was a series of encounters with people and things that made change possible, not a series of transactions designed to get one over on other people. I’ve missed him more than ever since he died because, seen in the whole, his life stands in rebuke to the philistinism, cynicism and bad faith that’s come to dominate public life.

He wanted to keep learning, and wanted us to keep learning. Bowie would share reading lists, playlists, lyrics saturated with cultural allusions. In the words of songwriter Edwyn Collins, speaking in response to the news of Bowie’s death: “He was warm; you could walk around with him in your head all day and it comforted you.”

I’ve collected pictures of Bowie since my teens: there’s little more compelling than looking at images of him in all his versions. It reminds you of what’s possible and that no one else has the power to tell you what, or who, you have to be at any stage.

Oswald Tschirtner and David Bowie in 1994.
Artist Oswald Tschirtner and Bowie in 1994. Photograph: Haus der Künstler/The House of Artists in Gugging

The image of Bowie that moves me the most was taken in Austria, in 1994, at the Gugging Haus der Künstler, then a gallery and therapeutic residential hospital for artists outside Vienna. Bowie – aged 47 and about to make one of his best albums, the quixotic Outside, with Brian Eno – is standing in a paved courtyard, with his arm around the older artist and Gugging resident Oswald Tschirtner, looking away from the camera, perhaps towards one of Tschirtner’s artworks.

Both are gaunt, slight, drably dressed, solemn and determined. You remember how Bowie wasn’t that tall, that he was shy, and how far he could dim his dazzle when he needed to. You remember that he’d lost his older half-brother Terry Burns, who introduced Bowie to the jazz and beat poetry that illuminated his music, to suicide, less than a decade earlier. Bowie and Tschirtner look like father and son, or even the same person a few decades apart.

What that picture displays, and what I love most about Bowie, is the full beam of his humanity. His lasting gift is that he believed in all of us. (“Give me your hands / cause you’re wonderful! Wonderful!”, he sang, again as Ziggy, in 1972.) What he taught me, as a teenager trying desperately to avoid a particular, socially determined path, was that you can inspect what you are given and you can refuse it, reuse it, make it and remake all of it.

Because of this, I feel that I loved him, someone I never even came close to meeting. It’s now been five years since Bowie died, and that feeling has never gone away. I remember being very small and asking my mum if she cried when Elvis died, having seen my parents shed tears when John Lennon was shot in 1980. The pop-cultural figures they grew up with had acted as a repository of hope and of a fundamental belief in humanity.

“Oh yes, I cried all day,” she answered. Now my own daughter asks me the same question about Bowie and I can’t answer her without crying. The most likely explanation for that is because, since his death, I’m back to feeling a bit lost, much as I did as a child. Bowie was, and remains, a guide for lonely people desperate to connect to a dim constellation they know to be there, but can’t see alone.

The musician and writer Nick Currie, AKA Momus, covered Bowie’s song Where Are We Now? in 2013 and immediately got a delighted response from the master: “That’s so cool!” Currie tells me that, as a teenager in the 70s, during Bowie’s phase of rapid changes in appearance, sound and style, he “seemed to grow with me, stretching me at every step. His extremities were important: the kabuki costumes, the unfeasibly high robotic voice singing about ball-breaking ultraviolence, the insanity theme, the romantic European imagery of Heroes … And yet always so utterly beautiful. There’s still a deep, deep wound in me about his disappearance. A Bowie-shaped hole.”

Yet, Currie concludes, “it’s as if I’ve accepted that what’s left of him is deep inside me, and so many others. He’s been distributed through us all. It’s not a dead legacy, it’s something encouraging and creative, as he always was.”

Many of us have spent the last five years wondering where he is when we really need him, but he supplied us with more than enough solace in his lifetime to help us through the rest of ours. The outpouring of grief shared across the airwaves on the day he died was spontaneous and, perhaps, unrepeatable. There was only one Bowie, but millions of us have had our lives changed because of him. In Paul Morley’s words, he showed us all “the importance of distinctive, disobedient imaginative action”, if we only care to try.

• Lead image released by Zebra One Gallery. The exhibition Oswald Tschirtner.! It’s All About Balance is at Museum Gugging until 10 January.

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