It’s been two days now.
I first heard at 8am on Monday morning. My girlfriend phoned me from her car and just blurted it out – ‘Bowie’s dead!’ Like most people I was shocked – ‘but he only released a new album on Friday!’ was my instant reaction. I thought that he had a few years left in him, maybe a couple more records, who knows? The rest of the day was spent feeling numb, fumbling through, accomplishing my tasks as best I could with this news at the forefront of my mind.
It’s not a tragedy. He was 69, for God’s sake! He had cancer. Many of my friends, many of your friends will die of cancer before that age and won’t have achieved a fraction of the things or lived the life that Bowie did. I never met him. I only saw him play live once, at Glastonbury in 2000. So why did I feel (like so many others on Monday) on the verge of tears all day? Why do I feel a sense of profound loss?
It’s not just the music. Nor what he represented or inspired in me. I think part of the collective grief over his passing is the fact that it reminds us how an entire era, a way of life is gradually slipping away from us. Bowie was one of the handful of artists that changed popular culture forever. He is a transformational figure in the same way that Elvis and The Beatles were. And there aren’t too many of them left. Dylan will be afforded the same reverence when he goes, McCartney, Jagger and Richards too. But they’re all elderly. Madonna is (arguably) the last to have changed music as profoundly and even she is 57. At some point soon in the next few decades all these icons will have departed this life.
Rock n’ roll is perhaps at the same stage today as cinema was in the 1970s. From my childhood I remember many of the stars of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood appear in their dotage on Parkinson. They sat down, told their stories and then one by one their deaths were announced on the evening news. Films were still made, people still went to the cinema, but the romance that had cohered around the medium went with them. Music increasingly feels the same way. Over the last couple of days I’ve heard a few people ask forlornly ‘where are the Bowies of today?’ But there will never be another figure that has the impact of a Bowie, a Dylan or a Madonna. They shaped the terrain, opened up the space that today’s artists perform, that all of us live in. It’s highly unlikely that any of today’s Division One stars will be venerated the same way when it’s their turn to go. The difference between (to pick a name at random) Ed Sheeran and Bowie is akin to that between Ray Mears and Magellan. Quite simply, you can’t circumnavigate the globe for the first time twice.
The heroic age of popular music is almost over and soon all we will have left are stories and battered old CDs to pass on to our children. That’s why I’m sad.