As humans, we often fail to grasp the vastness of our own universe. After he became the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong could only describe the experience in purely human terms: a step for man, a leap for mankind. When we are forced to think of all the possible worlds outside of our own, we do so by relating it to our own hopes, fears and desires. Still, it is often accompanied with a feeling somewhere between absolute joy and a crushing existential crisis.
Because of this, most of us shy away from the unknown and the alien, but this is where David Bowie found his musical home. He was never content with the human condition, probably because his aspirations were of a galactic scale. Only five days before the Apollo 11 mission, a time of international tension and excitement, he released his first hit, “Space Oddity.” But of course, in Bowie style, he said it was about the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Three years later, in 1972, many of the uninitiated were introduced to Bowie with his “Starman” performance on Top of the Pops. On “Starman,” Bowie had given birth to Ziggy Stardust, a redheaded alien in a colorful quilted jumpsuit singing about “a starman waiting in the sky.” Despite the theatrics, it’s a sincere and hopeful track, the kind that begs you to sing along. Not surprisingly, it’s the song mourning fans in his childhood neighborhood of Brixton chose to honor him with.
Over the course of his career, Bowie developed the sort of untouchable stature that made his death as shocking of an event as a meteor striking Earth. While Bowie proved to be mortal, it was his humanity that connected him to his Earthly fans. In his eulogy for Bowie, my friend and music critic Daniel Bromfield wrote, “He didn’t treat matters of the heart with jaded cynicism but with the same curiosity, delight and genuine fascination I felt myself as a gay 14-year-old kid who’d only had maybe six crushes at the time.”
I know he isn’t the only young person, unsatisfied with the world around him, who found solace in the unabashed weirdness of Bowie. His death has been marked with powerful outcries of love and mourning. But it is important to remember that like all of us humans, Bowie wasn’t perfect. His history with underage groupies is a reminder of the many famed musicians — from Iggy Pop to Marvin Gaye to Elvis Presley — who also had relationships with young women.
While Bowie’s music has traditionally not focused on his own biography, his latest release, ★ (Blackstar) is arguably the most Earthbound of his oeuvre, touching on his own faults and mistakes. On the single “Lazarus,” he opens with
“Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now”
He starts up in the clouds, but by the second line, he is clearly back on planet Earth. In a way, Bowie has written his own eulogy, and in it, he is far from the rock star idol many see him as. By the end, he has come to terms with his mortality, singing, “Oh, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird.”
With his death, we have a lasting image of Bowie built, torn apart and reconstructed over the course of 27 albums. We also have the work of the many artists inspired by Bowie, from Kurt Cobain to Vanilla Ice. For me, I think of Bowie every time I hear a song that captures the beauty of the extraterrestrial or the existential crisis involved when you take off from Earth, whether that’s in rocket ship or a commercial airline. That’s why I compiled this playlist, for Bowie. Here’s to you, Starman.