The Fearlessness of David Bowie

Passion of the Weiss takes the week to celebrate the life and mourn the death of David Bowie.
By    January 18, 2016

Art by Mark Jeremy

Kevin Shark’s presence is a present.

Read the rest of POW’s David Bowie tributes here

Last winter, I was lucky enough to attend the only U.S. tour stop of the David Bowie Is… exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in ChicagoThe retrospective was constructed as a multimedia stroll through the artist’s life— yet another comprehensive assault on the senses from a man who built a career on weaponizing his own aesthetic. In this corner, a shrine to The Thin White Duke. In that one, like six full albums worth of lyrics scrawled on yellowed pages probably still dusted with enough high-caliber cocaine residue to tip off the dogs at O’Hare.

The show was made up of hundreds of artifacts culled almost entirely from Bowie’s personal archives, and stretched out across an entire floor of the museum. To see all of it at once— jammed up against itself and overflowing in a way that defied curation, even while assembled in chronological order, was not unlike sitting down to watch every Kubrick movie back to back to back to back. It was overwhelming. How had one man made all of this? How had one man been all of these men? 

Like few others before him or since, Bowie understood the power of persona. He birthed and killed and re-birthed himself anew ten times over—rarely stumbling in his redesigns, and often molding the zeitgeist in the image of whatever visage he’d most recently presented on his way to the next.

Then, an “all everything” everything approach to creation was alien. Now, it’s at least somewhat intuitive. Today an entire generation scrambles to present themselves as David Bowie once did—begging their peers to view them as an artist/writer/musician/fashionisto/dot connector/whatever the fuck else might fit in a Twitter bio. Few have come as close as Kanye West.

In his 140-character tribute to the fallen icon, Kanye called Bowie one of his “most important inspirations,” and referenced his fearlessness immediately after. Of course it was fearlessness that Kanye saw in Bowie, because it’s the tendency of Kanye to see the Kanye-est of attributes in all of his idols. He isn’t wrong, though. Not in championing that trait in Bowie, and not in believing it about himself.

It’s a special kind of fearlessness, to believe so totally in what you’re creating to allow yourself to be lost in it. To become inseparable, man from art. Bowie had that. Kanye does, too. It’s why fans can look at an image of either Bowie or Kanye, and pinpoint what creation came closest to it based on an article of clothing, a hairstyle, or a spouse.

Every artist starts their career with the opportunity to be whoever they’d like. And the greatest disappointment, for fans, often comes from watching artists flounder in their own success—unsure of how exactly they earned it. In a 2013 entry to Esquire’s long-running What I’ve Learned series, Bowie wrote: “Fame can take interesting men and thrust mediocrity upon them.”

It could’ve been a sneak diss at some his golden age of rock peers, or it might’ve been a reminder to himself after a disappointing release in The Next Day, but few sentences could sum up the way that Bowie’s career diverges from nearly all other creators. When fame took Bowie and tried to thrust mediocrity upon him, he told fame and fear to fuck off and lived nearly-anonymously in Berlin, producing three of his all-time greatest—and ultimately, longest lasting—albums (Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger).

That ability to fearlessly zig when everyone else zagged is the kind of thing that entire books of bullshit business theories are built on. It’s the same fearlessness that Kanye hinted at—and it’s also his legendary fearlessness in sexuality, theatricality, musicality, in life, and ultimately in death.

So I think again of that monument to fearlessness constructed in Chicago last winter, and of what we now know—that the artist himself walked through his exhibition with the knowledge that he wasn’t long for this world. Surrounded by effigies of all his past selves, I wonder if he pictured in his own mind some not-yet-existent corner of the museum, and what the last chapter might look like when it was writ complete.

We’ll spend decades wondering without answer what the last 18-months might have been for Bowie, and dissecting the clues left behind on Blackstar. How could he have created something so vital, when faced with a reality so bleak? Anyone who has witnessed a loved one fall to cancer—so, everyone—knows how cruelly the disease can rob a person of themselves. But here he was, as Bowie as ever, giving a knowing wink to anyone who may have been paying attention.

Fearless, until the very end. Fearless beyond it, too.


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