How Bowie Died, And Why The Phone Didn’t Ring

By Andrej Mrevlje |

The death of David Bowie created an incredible commotion among his fans. The news, short as it was – barely mentioning Bowie’s 18-month-long battle against cancer that nobody had known about – didn’t just trigger a sense of loss and despair, but something deeper and more personal. Whoever I talked to, whatever I read about David Bowie’s death, told me a different story. The endless, deeply rooted memories of the musician, actor and performer – the songs, images and lyrics that fans used to describe their strong attachment to their hero were so different from each other that it was hard to say whether they were all talking about the same person. And yet, there was only one person who could connect all the dots: Bowie himself. But now that this magician, this hero, this transcendent, extraterrestrial creature has gone, thousands upon thousands are speaking in his name, while Bowie left the stage – indeed, our planet – in the same miraculous way as he landed on it almost half a century ago: with a performance.

In many ways Bowie’s life on Earth was one long, constantly evolving  performance. Except that this time there won’t be any comebacks or reappearances. As Bowie told us in “Lazarus,” a song from his last album, Blackstar (released two days before his death), he is now in heaven, and has dropped his cellphone down below. No more calls, folks:

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.

Look up here, man, I’m in danger!

I’ve got nothing left to lose.

I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl.

Dropped my cellphone down below.

Ain’t that just like me?!

The song’s music video shows Bowie on his deathbed in a cold hospital room – the coldest, most miserable stage imaginable. Out of an old wooden wardrobe, an eerie silhouette sneaks into the room, its hands reaching towards Bowie, who is blindfolded, two buttons covering his eyes. He looks like he is tied to the bed, trying to get up, his gray hair stand on end.

“I am in danger,” he sings in terror.  Another Bowie appears from behind the wardrobe, dancing rigidly, showing his aged but energetic face, singing into the camera with anger, as if the blindfolded Bowie on the bed could watch his own performing caricature. The performing Bowie writes something compulsively, while the bedridden Bowie tries to sit up, reaching to the ceiling. We can see the dying Bowie on the bed from high above, and the performing Bowie moving backwards like a string puppet being pulled back into the wardrobe. Then darkness.

Oh, I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

Oh, I’ll be free

Ain’t that just like me?

Was this pained performance meant to symbolize Bowie’s last moments of life? What was Bowie, who knew that he was dying, trying to tell himself – tell his fans – with “Lazarus”? The whole album is about death – being shown, explained and feared in different and very confusing narratives. It is the excruciating and powerful demonstration of an immortal pop star fading away, scared shitless all the while. It was Bowie’s most courageous, honest and powerful performance. Or was the performance a way to grapple with the difficulties of facing the death? Was “Lazarus” the last call of help to Jesus? I doubt it.

Bowie was agnostic, and nothing shows that he became religious in the last days of his life. And we do not know how Bowie died. Did he die like he performed in Blackstar? Did he die before the album was released? Did he die at all? Who was it that died on January 10, really? Was it David Bowie, the immortal pop star, or David Jones, the boy born in London?

In 2013, Bowie’s gracious wife, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, spoke about him in an interview for the Guardian.They’ve been married for 22 years and he’s said that he knew instantly that she was the one, and that she’d be his wife,” the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr wrote. “It sounds like it was quite overwhelming?”

“‘For him. I was not ready for a relationship. Definitely I didn’t want to get into a relationship with somebody like him. But as I always said: I fell in love with David Jones. I did not fall in love with David Bowie. Bowie is just a persona. He’s a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is a man I met.’”  

Abdulmajid was one of the few people who really knew David Jones, the non-performer. None of us has ever had any interest in Bowie as anything other than a performer. So what if David Bowie had enough and just wanted his public persona to die? What if David Jones lives in isolation somewhere away far away Bowie’s fans, just growing tomatoes? When he and his wife Iman secretly visited London a few months ago and stayed in their house there, Bowie said that this proved that stars won’t always be recognized or bothered.

Besides, there are no photos. There was no big funeral. It is as if somebody is keeping very strict control over the information related to the star’s death. Is it just a question of privacy?  

So, really, what if Bowie simply camouflaged himself, stepped back into his old shoes as David Jones, before he became the Starman – like in this little “Conversation Piece,” which released in 1969, though it was re-edited 32 years later. It’s a tender song, and the idea that David Jones is still somewhere out there walking in the rain, is mind blowing. Perhaps this idea is more consequent that the whole Blackstar performance, as a gesture to consolidate his immortality.   

At least, this is how I would like to think of it. But then, researching and digging with the help of my friends, I bumped into an open letter to David Bowie, written by Dr. Mark Taubert, a palliative care consultant at the Velindre NHS Trust in Cardiff. The letter was published on the British Medical Journal’s website. In his letter, Dr. Taubert wrote:

I am a palliative care doctor, and what you have done in the time surrounding your death has had a profound effect on me and many people I work with. Your album is strewn with references, hints and allusions. As always, you don’t make interpretation all that easy, but perhaps that isn’t the point. I have often heard how meticulous you were in your life. For me, the fact that your gentle death at home coincided so closely with the release of your album, with its good-bye message, in my mind is unlikely to be coincidence. All of this was carefully planned, to become a work of death art. The video of Lazarus is very deep and many of the scenes will mean different things to us all; for me it is about dealing with the past when you are faced with inevitable death.

The letter seems to indicate that doctor helped Bowie, that he knew that he died at his home in New York.

So, in the end, each of us might feel something similar to what Kieron Gillen,a comic-book creator who worked with Bowie, described in an interview for  “Bowie’s like — it’s that awful quote, there’s a molecule of Hitler in everyone’s lungs? — there’s a molecule of Bowie in everything in pop culture. You take away Bowie, you lose a lot. There’s so many things he did.”

So let everyone carry his own molecule of David Bowie. In this way, he will stay immortal as long as we are alive.

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