David Bowie had been singing about his death since he incorporated Jacques Brel’s incomparable ‘My Death’ into his first self-destruction – that of his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust – who passed from this world into the realm of myth at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973.
Since that time, many other reflections of Bowie have also bitten the dust – Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, among others – while even earlier incarnations such as Major Tom were resurrected (albeit in a new life as a junkie) in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ in 1980.
‘Ashes to Ashes’ was one of Bowie’s many triumphs and attempts to explain the nature of life and death. He could sing “Do you remember a guy that’s been in such an early song?” and we all knew who he was talking about. Himself, as Major Tom. There was a thin line between Bowie the man and Bowie the character – part of his autobiographical art was that you could never tell how much he was singing about himself, and how much he was inventing.
In the late seventies, after a drug-infused period in Berlin, he had turned from space cadet, Major Tom, to fully-fledged drug addict. And then back again.
So Bowie could allow his characters to live and die, always aware that he was not so much the Man Who Sold the World, but the man who invented ‘Bowie-World’ – a fantasy place comprising of characters that had fluid sexuality, glamour and style.
And despite his hit ‘Fashion’, he was not a fashion. He was the style that led fashion. He was out on his own. No-one could touch him for his on-going brilliance in the 1970s, each record better than the last – an on-going display of brilliance and re-invention. It was pointless to copy him, though many did. But by the time others had perfected one version of Bowie, he had morphed into another guise.
In London, by 1980, those that cared about their clothes either were punks or Bowie clones from one of his many incarnations. His influence on popular culture, art, sex, drugs, and just general coolness could never be equalled in that era. In a much more judgemental time, he was bisexual, weird, out and outlandish.
He was every teenager’s hero and model – saying what they never could (Hey man, oh leave me alone), and offering them the hope that no matter how different they were, they were still, as he put it in ‘Rock ‘n Roll Suicide’, ‘wonderful’.
And even though he killed off his characters, they retain a certain immortality as artistic creations that is not possible for human beings, even himself, no matter how intertwined he was with his art and his creations. But his view of himself as integral to his art raises some questions about how he chose to die.
Three questions remain.
Did he die? And if he did, did he die last Sunday, January 10? And did he die by his own hand?
They are important questions, for different reasons.
To stifle the conspiracy theorists, let’s consider the first question – did he die?
The question arises in the first place because of precedent. When the great country singer, Gram Parsons, died, his road manager stole the body and burned it in the Joshua Tree desert in California. It led to years of speculation by fans that Parsons wasn’t actually dead, but had faked his own death to escape the music business and the pressures he was under.
I think we can safely assume that David Bowie, the man, is dead. However, the fact that he knew about his impending death for almost two years, combined with the other fact that he loved to re-invent himself and surprise his audience, renders the possibility of another album sometime in the future less than impossible. Die-hard fans will certainly hold out that hope.
Bowie was superlative in his field. He believed in music not just as entertainment, but art. What could be more artistic than to record music to be heard after his death? It would appeal to his sense of ‘art’ and his perception of his legacy. So, while the man, Bowie, might have died last week, it’s quite possible we have not heard the last of him.
The next question is rather more fraught. Did he die when his family and entourage said he did?
We might never know the answer to that question. It wasn’t like he was in a public facility where the truth tends to leak out eventually, especially regarding famous people. His wishes for his own death (something, as I’ve mentioned, he was obsessed about for a long time) would have been carried out to the letter, so he might have instructed that when he died he was to be cremated and buried before anyone could make a fuss.
It would seem now that there is going to be no funeral or memorial – and certainly the public isn’t going to see a body. We have to take the word of those closest to him on the facts. We have to accept them as they are, but given Bowie’s predilection in real life for blurring the edges of reality, we would be foolish to accept them at face value.
The next and most vital question is whether or not he died by his own hand. We are told he died ‘peacefully’, but was that because he (or a family member or friend) administered a lethal cocktail of drugs?
If he had chosen to end his life at a particular time, he hardly had the option of doing it quietly in Switzerland. He would have known that such an act would have ended in a media circus, and he would hardly have wanted that for his family. He would have to do it privately, of course, and would have to plan for it.
Many of us who have lost someone to suicide know the awful pain wrought on those who remain by that act. But ‘assisted-suicide’ in the face of terminal illness is much different. If Bowie had wanted to avoid months of agony by terminating his life before that happened, he couldn’t legally do that in the US. Any other option (travelling abroad) would have attracted the world’s media and massive intrusion.
So, his only option, if he ultimately chose to die at his own time of choosing, would have been to do so at home, under medical supervision, without letting the world know. Then, if he was cremated straight away, there would be no evidence that anything other than a natural death occurred.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that he died in just the manner that his family suggested, but it’s equally possible that the above scenario took place.
Why does it matter, I hear you say?
Well, it matters because many people don’t get the option to end their suffering when they choose. Bowie’s death, if it was planned in advance, is not an option for people without a good deal of money and influence. It would seem that the rich can not only live better, they can die better too.
And, painful as it may be, unwelcome as it may be, we should take the opportunity offered to us by Bowie’s death to discuss the issue of death – particularly our own – and how we want to deal with that. And nobody should have to suffer penalties under the law because they help a loved one end their suffering, with their consent.
Yet, daily, doctors prolong life that has no quality to it, where the patient (or victim) has no desire other than to leave this world, for what they hope will be a better one. If they have money and influence (enough to buy the kind of privacy David Bowie enjoyed) they can manage it, certainly. But if they are ordinary folk, they must endure until the inevitable end. And their family must watch this painful exit, unable to help.
The life of David Bowie was extraordinary by any standard. He was always ahead of his contemporaries, and he never needed to copy anyone or anything, because he was the complete original.
But his death may prove to be even more extraordinary in its quiet dignity.
We may never know exactly what happened. But we do know for certain that we are all going to die someday. For some, with life-limiting conditions, the concept of suicide in that circumstance is not a crime, but a release they seek, and have a right to access.
If people suffering from terminal illness and in extreme pain choose to die are helped by loving relatives, those relatives may be prosecuted under the law in most countries. That comes from ancient ideas about ‘God’, and believing we are all subject to an invisible deity who decides these matters.
Such a concept is unfeeling, inhuman, and absurd in our modern world, where we have the ability to reduce pain and suffering. To not do so, based on interpretations of Judeo-Christian beliefs is not just unscientific, it’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
Legislators shy away from granting people such rights because the people who need them will be dead soon enough, and therefore, unable to lobby or vote for their cause. And the rest of the public has no interest in either thinking, or talking about death – understandably, it’s something most people want to avoid.
But perhaps the time has come to legislate some kindness and autonomy into the dying process, and give people the right to choose their time of dying, in much the way, I suspect, David Bowie did.
In life Bowie inspired numerous followers and imitators. In death, his influence may be just as profound.