Two weeks ago, I read the morning news with palpable dread: rock legend David Bowie had died.
I was late to love his music, first introduced to Bowie at age 15 via the soundtrack covers in the 2004 Wes Anderson flick, The Life Aquatic. Even cooled by the unclad, mellifluous strumming and voice of Seu Jorge, the essence of Bowie blinked through: searing pain, open-veined longing, and a fearless dazzle in the dark.
After college, I picked Bowie up directly after hearing “Rebel Rebel”. I fell quite flatly for the alien mystique of Ziggy Stardust, one of the alter egos Bowie took up throughout his musical career. There was something rigorously, honestly cool about this man, this character, who could pretend to be from outer space, on a mission to share rock ‘n roll with the waiting coasts of the world. Completely out there. And yet the focus of his music was always other people’s lives. His art expressed the anxieties and flops, and yearnings, of the denizens of Earth.
Immediately after Bowie’s death, praise began to circulate with an emphasis on his out-there-ness. Simcha Fisher at Aleteia admitted that, in fact, Bowie’s extraterrestrial persona was never what she appreciated about his music:
“That voice. Alien? No. It sounded like wood weathered to silver by the ocean; it sounded like steel corroded into intricate designs; it sounded like crazed glass that had cracked but not shattered. Pain and anger and weariness and wit — these are not alien or martian or otherworldly. They are human, and so was he.”
In a world of hackneyed artists, David Bowie’s songs had nothing of the poisonously insipid malaise that makes up so much of mainstream culture. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano paid tribute to Bowie, calling him artistically rigorous and “never banal”.
The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, tweeted fitting lyrics from Bowie’s song Space Oddity:
Is it crazy that I find Jesus Christ in this? No. Christ is the most sublime, transcendent. He entered the world from eternity, from glory unfathomable, from the very arms of the Creator–and he became human. “Pain and anger and weariness and wit” – these are things that describe Christ’s life. Shaped in the waters of Mary’s womb, his bones would become pressed to the point just before breaking, for our sake.
For love of us, Christ carried our agony and angst, our nostalgia for a world of seamless joy and peace, and then poured that love out for everyone on the cross. I believe some of that love entered into David Bowie, and made his art possible.
Perhaps Kristen Walker Hatten said it best when she wrote,
We are all creators, because we were made by a Creator, and He made us something like Himself. David Bowie … took his pain and loneliness and … his experience on this planet and made it Art. He made Music. He was a human. He tried to be on this earth in a way that was beautiful and made sense. … This sinner created beauty on earth that wasn’t here before he got here, and he shared it with the whole world, and he let us all see his pain and loneliness and brokenness and weirdness so we would feel a little bit better about ours.
To take a little bit of pressure off us. Was David Bowie a saint? No. But he was a soulful weirdo, a beneficent genius, an incredible showman. He was a child of God who worked tirelessly to give his audience the gift of good music up until the very end. He died of cancer two days after releasing his latest album, Blackstar.
That same day, his wife Iman posted an image to her Instagram with the words, “The struggle is real but so is God.” Indeed. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace, Starman. Amen.
A version of this post originally ran on The Pilgrim Log, blog of the Pilgrim Center of Hope.