The first reaction this morning to reading a bulletin that David Bowie had died at 69 was one of disbelief. If ever there were one person who seemed in with a chance of somehow avoiding having to shuffle off his mortal coil, it was the preternaturally youthful Bowie.
For people of a certain age – specifically, mine - Bowie had always been there: has always been, through assorted reinventions, part of the zeitgeist. He was a global phenomenon rooted in quintessential Englishness, which is perhaps why he resonated so much with someone like me who grew up in the United Kingdom just as his talent was announcing its presence.
His original version of "Space Oddity" – in which he already shows his eccentric talent if not yet the later polish – was recorded in 1969, when I was one year old. (I think, however, my very first recollection of him was singing "The Laughing Gnome," which he hated, and which he hated even more after it was re-released in 1973 to take advantage of his rapidly exploding fame.) More than 40 years later, Space Oddity's continued cultural relevance and significance was reinforced when Col. Chris Hadfield recorded a cover from the International Space Station.
In between, Bowie was alternately Ziggy Stardust; an FBI agent in the "Twin Peaks" prequel movie; a prisoner-of-war in "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"; an alien (duh) in "The Man who Fell to Earth"; an uncomfortable yet oddly compelling singing partner of Bing Crosby in what would improbably become one of the all-time classic Christmas songs; producer of and songwriting partner to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop; and through it all, even until just days before his death, a creator of stand-out music.
He was brave as an artist, too. To get a sense of just how much the world has transformed since he first set out on his career path, and how much an instrument of that transformation he was, check him out at 17 (!) when he was still Davy Jones, as the head of, of all things, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. Small wonder that there was recently a link at which you could enter your age, see what Bowie was doing at the same age and, pretty much whoever you are, feel deeply inferior.
Hence the surprise this morning. Bowie seemed always present, ever youthful, and constantly creating. But now he's stepped through the door; the shock has yielded to sadness; and the stars look very different today.