I have no proper standing to write a tribute to David Bowie. I'm not an artist nor critic and (of course) I didn't know him personally.
As a fan, I was born well after his debut, and his best work was behind him before I had object permanence. All the same, I came to him later still. It didn't help that my introduction was *shudder* Labyrinth. The first Bowie song I actually liked was Golden Years. It was in some overlong, made-for-TV Stephen King movie, but it inspired me to pick up a used cassette copy of the hits-compilation, Changes.
After that, he resurfaced with Tin Machine—who get no love to this day. Let's face facts, though: flawed as they were, Tin Machine pulled Bowie out of a creative nose-dive. All the interesting work he did in his 90s-era career resurgence was with Reeves Gabrels from the Machine. More salient to my personal history, Tin Machine baptized me—I was a born again David Bowie fanatic.
Since my indoctrination, I've steeped myself in his work. In 1999, Bowie re-remastered his catalog, issuing it all without the bonus tracks Rykodisc had included in previous editions. My friends and I then put our own box set together, compiling all that missing extra material together in one place—and then continued on to include more recent b-sides and live material to create a complete and up-to-date, alternate-universe portrait of Bowie. We spent months on it—designs, levels, track order, obtaining obscure bits we were missing. I even made a custom re-edit of the I'm Afraid of Americans remixes. In all my collecting, I've never taken on a project quite like it.
In the post-everything, indie-rock world at the turn of the century, Bowie has graduated to being as much a forgone conclusion as the Beatles. There is no question of quality or importance, just discussions over which Bowie was your favorite—conversations I've had countless times. I've talked through contradicting explanations of his career highlights and lowlights. Being such a completist, I've always cherished what I thought were under-appreciated corners of his catalog: from Pin-Ups and deep album cuts or b-sides from the 70s to Tin Machine or Earthling and Hours in the 90s.
Of his recent output—the two albums he put out after a decade of silence—I was initially disappointed by The Next Day, thinking Bowie was playing it too safe. With the much more experimental follow-up, Blackstar (and now, his death), I look back at it differently. It's as if Bowie proved he could give us what we wanted and expected of him; that he could age gracefully. Then he decided to say, "Naw, fuck that." Of late, Bowie seemed to be having the same conversations about his work we were: trying to make some form of sense from the messy whole of his career.
What's funny, is it doesn't feel as if I put as much stake in his iconography as others seem to. Even though a good portion of his work is, in essence, himself, Bowie matters to me for what he put down. He has proven time and again that pop music can be artful, and a practice of 'capital-a' Art. Stars don't have to age into irrelevance—that is, if they keep striving. They may fail, Bowie often did, but he failed by trying. I'll take a misguided mess of aspiration over a flaccid, lukewarm walk-through any day. Bowie will never be remembered for his mistakes—he's big enough, they'll never go away completely (nor should they), but his successes will tower over them with ever-greater import in the coming decades.
Still, this morning, after I read the news so rudely displayed on my phone's home-screen as the alarm went off, I found myself tearing up. What a way to wake the fuck up, "Beep! Beep! One of your heroes is dead!" Given my arm's-length distance from his persona, I felt weird for crying. So I made some bad jokes, "I guess they'll have to scrap their plans for Labyrinth II, now" or, "Funny that a gender-bending, transgressive icon died, aged 69" (da-duh-duh). Then I felt sort of callous for joking about it. The sadness was honest. Even if I only took what he put to wax, I was deeply vested in the story of that creative output, the arc of his art over time. As universal and public as that loss is, the sting of it feels very personal.
Today, I'm listening to his entire discography. All of it. The good, the bad, the mistakes and the works of unadulterated genius. I'm listening with the new perspective that the tale it's telling is suddenly complete.