“As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?”
David Bowie was musing on his album Heathen when he made the above statement to the New York Times in 2002. Today, in the wake of the musical icon’s passing following an eighteen-month battle with cancer, the sentiment seems to take on a greater meaning.
What to do with the time left, indeed. Just three days ago, on his sixty-ninth birthday, Bowie released his twenty-fifth and final studio album, Blackstar. The album is rife with musings on mortality and, given Bowie’s knowledge of his illness – kept secret from the media and fans – it now plays like a message from beyond the grave. “Oh, I’ll be free,” he sings in the second track on the album, “Lazarus”. “Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me?”
Perhaps Blackstar serves as the most fitting parting gift from a man whose fixation with the cosmic world manifested in songs like “Ziggy Stardust”, “Space Oddity”, “Moonage Daydream”, “Life On Mars?”, “Born In A UFO”, and “Dancing Out In Space” – to name a few. Bowie’s fixation with celestial themes provided the world with a ready soundtrack for its own historic milestones; “Space Oddity” was released just five days before the Apollo 11 launched and, by the time Neil Armstrong was taking his “small step for man” on the surface of the moon, Bowie’s release was hitting the Top Five across the UK airwaves. In an age of heightened fascination with the galaxies beyond our own and heated debate on the existence of extraterrestrial life, Bowie’s music provided an outlet – a language, even – through which society could interpret its dreams and fears of the ever-expanding, infinite universe. There is arguably no artist who so effectively explored the concept of being ‘alien’; David Bowie was always a stranger in a stranger land, and fashioned a career that spanned mediums from music to painting to acting as he struggled to understand and define the strange, shifting world around him.
David Bowie’s reputation as a space dreamer was further solidified in 2008, when an asteroid discovered by astronomer Felix Hormuth was named (342843) Davidbowie in honour of the influential artist.
Perhaps it was his early life as an exceedingly artistic child in the historically Conservative-leaning town of Bromley, England, that launched Bowie – then known by his birth name, David Robert Jones – on a lifelong path of imagining and re-imagining the concept of exactly what it means to be an outsider. Indeed, even the early days of his career found Bowie (by that time performing under the stage name Davy [or occasionally Davie] Jones) migrating from one unsuccessful band to another, ever the misfit in the burgeoning London rock scene. It wasn’t until Bowie ventured out on his own and began exploring the pop and psychedelia sounds that would later capture the world’s attention that he came into his own as an artist and visionary.
According to David Bowie’s official Twitter account, he passed away peacefully while surrounded by his family. As always when such an iconic figure passes, people took to social media en masse to express their condolences and grieve his loss. Especially poignant were the words of Bowie’s fellow ‘spaceman’ Chris Hadfield, a popular astronaut whose cover of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral in 2013:
Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman. pic.twitter.com/FbcxlAzces
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) January 11, 2016
On his website, Hadfield describes how the collaborative cover came about: “For the past 14 years, humans have lived and worked aboard a research vessel orbiting our planet. It is science fiction come to life. Like at all initial outposts, we’ve brought our traditions and sensibilities and are applying and appreciating them in a new place. Sometimes, as in the case of Oddity[sic], it has let us see our ideas and creations, ourselves, in a new light …. We’re proud to have helped bring Bowie’s genius from 1969 into space itself in 2013, and now ever-forward.”
We may be no closer to understanding the secrets of the cosmos than we were when ‘Space Oddity’ was released and a flagstaff bearing the American Stars and Stripes was pitched in moon rock, but perhaps the late Bowie once said it best: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”