“bowie is dead”. The three-word Facebook message — all lowercase — somehow reaches me on a barely-functional wifi network on the jetfoil between Korea and Japan. I get a burst of adrenalin, a surge of horror. Can this be a joke? If it is, it’s in very bad taste. I try to load the BBC News site on my phone. No joy. Try it on the MacBook Air. After much groaning and gurning the headlines finally load. Nothing about Bowie. It must be a hoax. I remember something Iman once said: “David doesn’t believe anything until it’s reported on the BBC.” I make a mental note to unfriend the joker. But then Twitter sputters into life. I manage to get half a page of my feed. One of the tweets is from Duncan Jones, Bowie’s son. It’s true, he says. There’s a photo of Bowie hoisting him onto his back. Duncan is going offline for a while, he says.
Going offline is what I also do. By necessity, because I’m on the Sea of Japan and the wifi isn’t working. But it’s probably for the best. This is cataclysmic news. I want to be alone with it for a while. Bowie has been my lodestar, the single most decisive influence on my life. I want to find out how I feel, and what to think, and what to do.
It’s just gone 4pm. The Sea of Japan has never looked more leaden. We’ve passed Tsushima, an island outpost of Japan which is actually closer to Korea. We’ll be arriving at Fukuoka within the hour. Then — assuming there are no visa problems — I’ll take the train to Osaka. I have a few hours alone with this. My first thought is melodramatic: “It really doesn’t matter if this boat sinks now.” Then I think of my father, who died in June. Bowie — seventeen years younger than him, and thirteen older than me — was really a second father. My father sired Nick Currie, but it was Bowie who sired Momus, the artistic self I became. To lose them both within months of each other is really hard.
At the same time, you really have to hand it to the man: what fantastic theatrical timing! He faced the final curtain — which we will all face — with characteristic aplomb, going out at the top of his game, having recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to author a hit musical, released his strongest LP in years, and made two extraordinary videos. Not to mention a touring museum show with the now-poignant title “David Bowie Is…”. And then to go, to cease — so unexpectedly! — days after his 69th birthday! Weeks after a public appearance in which his legs did admittedly look worryingly thin…
Apparently he’d had cancer for eighteen months. What a keeper of secrets, just as he was when he used to sneak in and out of Bromley bedsits, playing girls off against each other, giving everyone a different story! Sneaky David who lied to everybody because it really wasn’t any of our business! He even got Tony Visconti to lie about him being healthy and strong! I’d heard the cancer rumours, but I believed the lies. I preferred to, needed to: the lies were so much more palatable.
But it wasn’t really “unexpectedly”. His songs — the public statements that really matter — had all the while been spelling things out stark and clear to those of us willing to listen. I felt uncomfortable singing, in my Blackstar cover: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside…” It was totally clear who “he” was. And then came Lazarus, with “Look up here, I’m in heaven…” And that video which has him disappearing into the wardrobe at the end. To Narnia, some said.
My next thought, there on the jetfoil, is: if anyone were to fake their own death it would be Bowie. He’d have it announced, and believed, and then slip off to a Bond villain retreat in the mountains of Borneo. There he’d grow elegantly cadaverous just like Balthus, the wily old artist he interviewed for Modern Painters. He’d vicariously lap up the tributes, relish the tears, laughing at our sentimentality about someone we stereotyped, sometimes, as cocaine-cold, when in fact he was a histrionic volcano of emotion. And of course he’d make a few appearances, like Elvis, because he’s always enjoyed freaking people out, stretching their ideas about life and death, especially if there was an opportunity to impersonate Elvis at the same time. Bowie not dead after all! Bowie sighted in face mask and button eyes shopping for legwarmers at Target! Please let it be true!
And my God, how the tributes will flow! For oddities and misshapes, this is our “Diana moment”. Everyone will regale everyone else with tales of how they first encountered Bowie, what his work meant to them. I got some practise in during my Blackstar cover: the spoken narrative in the middle describes how, when I was forced to play rugby at a grim Scottish boarding school, David became “my best and only friend”, a ray of light in the institutional darkness who not only understood me but understood the darkness too. It was 1972, and Mark “Huggett” Hughes had Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust on permanent loan from his big sister. They became a dark world I could inhabit, a consolation. They demonstrated that art could make an unbearable life bearable: art was utterly transformative. Yes, I had an imaginary friend. You did too. It was the same guy. We were projecting collectively, dreaming synchronously.
I’ve never met David Bowie. I once got to ask him a question in an online chat on Bowienet, something about art magazines. And when I made my semi-instantaneous cover of Where Are We Now in 2013 he noticed it — to my utter surprise and delight — and a day or so later a story about it ran on his website. A tiny thing for him, a huge one for me. Asked last month by a Greek music magazine for my “career highlight”, I cited “being noticed by David Bowie after a lifetime of noticing him”. That’s how it felt. I never sent him my books, or my covers album with its disk dedicated to him, entitled “Dybbuk”. But I did get to explain the allusion on Bowie’s own site, at the prompting of Mark Adams, who runs it. So I do know that Bowie read it:
“David Bowie is the cultural figure without whom I as Momus simply wouldn’t have existed: a genius, a massively liberating presence producing prolifically throughout five decades, an enthusiastic index of cultural connections, a sort of internet-before-the-internet. Like the dybbuk of Jewish mythology, Bowie is a sum of stolen souls, a collection of all the most impressive gestures and talents of cultural figures he’s encountered and been smitten by. I want to make an unashamedly dark and leftfield take concentrating on the early cabaret work, the demos, the flickering shadows of Brecht and Brel, the avant-garde and eccentric moments, the symphonic poems. Songs Bowie has never performed live himself will be unfurled in unexpected yet faithful new readings, accompanied by video projections showing the many imitators whose souls the great dybbuk has so wonderfully spirited away.”
When I performed my Dybbuk cabaret at Cafe Oto the Bowie website plugged the show, and Mark Adams (“Total Blam Blam”) came along, gave me a great big bear hug, and videoed the concert for David himself. I never heard whether it met with approval, or was even seen. In my dealings with “Bowie’s people” I never wanted to be a nuisance or push myself forward. Everything that happened — and each tiny encouragement felt like being touched ever-so-slightly by the hand of a mortal god — happened because they wanted it. And, presumably, because he did. The one misstep I made was suggesting, in 2013, that I conduct an “intelligent interview” with Bowie. The silence that followed that suggestion was thunderous. Interviews were clearly not on the agenda.
So where are we now, all the little Bowie-ettes and Bowie-ologists whose souls were so gloriously stolen by nothing more than charm and talent and the forward-thrown lightning bolts of sheer heart-swallowing possibility? Well, we’re in a world made brighter than it ever dared be. Look at how grey and gloomy and awful Britain was in the 1970s, and then look at those Bowie lightning bolts, and imagine how inspirational they must have been to us! This was — incarnated in one frail and faggy yet utterly masculine person — a way to live, and be, in a form of supple, smooth gloriousness. Every dancer you ever wanted to be, every singer, every actor, every lover.
By the age of 14 my soul was utterly stolen: I looked in the mirror in my Montreal high school and was genuinely surprised not to see David Bowie looking back at me. Now there’s a weird feeling that I’m betraying him somehow: why am I still alive and he isn’t? Couldn’t I have taken a bullet for him? Couldn’t the second law of thermodynamics have been suspended, just this once?
I imagine people expecting me to do what Indian warrior widows traditionally did: throw themselves into their husbands’ graves in the act known as suttee. Because, really, why be alive in a world bereft of David Bowie? I imagine vicious people saying: “Oh, Momus just copies David Bowie the day after, let’s wait and see if he dies on Tuesday.” But no, actually I think there’ll be a great togetherness now, something I’ve felt strongly at moments when our little cult expands and everyone becomes — if only temporarily — a Bowie fan.
That will be one consolation. The bigger consolation is that the work remains, and he made so much of it, and our relationship with that amazing body of work will continue and evolve. The work will continue to dazzle and inspire and produce new work for centuries to come.
Nobody on the jetfoil crossing the Sea of Japan yet knows that David Bowie is no longer in the world. People on Facebook know it, because my phone is vibrating from time to time with message alerts. I contemplate tapping the Western couple sitting in front of me on the shoulder and telling them, but what would be the point? I wonder if the middle-aged Japanese man next to me would care? I envision catching glimpses, from my train later, of gigantic Bladerunneresque billboards displaying weeping images of David Bowie, or weeping images of his Japanese fans.
In fact the streets of Fukuoka are filled with radiant faces. Girls in kimonos and brilliant white stoles. Schoolgirls in uniform, coyly aware of their youthful radiance and its transience. Simultaneously sexual and Buddhist in that knowledge. Bright neon signs. Unlike all those romantically dark Bowie scenarios in which the world is dying and the newsman weeps and corpses rot on the slimy thoroughfare, the fact is that life goes on despite this news in its innocent, incorrigible way. Joy, traffic, the light in the sky. And after I die pretty girls will also still be smiling obliviously. Cakes and ale. The world keeps swinging.
I remember something young Bowie told Russell Harty: “Do I worship anything? Life. I very much love life.” He said it with a twinkle in his eye. (In one of his last interviews the theme returned with dark humour: “I’m not going to enjoy being dead much.”) As the jetfoil crosses the mercury-grey sea, something catches the bleary corner of my eye. A silvery flash, there and then gone, a big living thing breaking the surface of the water, leaping with what looks like joy, the pure joy of being alive. A swordfish? I’m too slow to see for sure, but I decide it was a dolphin.