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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bowie, Pratchett, and the Art of Mortality


It's a morbid day indeed when I take a break from washing the last bedding my recently deceased pet slept on while listening to David Bowie's last album to read a chapter of Terry Pratchett's last novel. Being reminded in the first half of the first month of a brand new year that Things End feels counterproductive to an unpleasant extreme. 'I'm trying to move forward, universe, but all you're doing is showing me endings.'

Which is not to say David Bowie was cut down unfairly in his prime. Or maybe it is. It's hard to tell. I'm deeply resentful of cancer in all its forms because it's already taken so much from me, and it's going to keep doing so for the span of my lifetime (with my family history, I won't be surprised if it comes for a look-in on me in my later years). We weren't deprived of an up-and-coming talent in his early years, but we also aren't looking at a decades-retired rocker who'd done his bit and put down the microphone in favour of quieter pastimes for the last years he had remaining.

It hasn't escaped me just how close that musing is to my musing on the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett -- another who created until he stopped. But with Pratchett, we knew, didn't we? He'd warned us. At least for me, always lurking in the back of my mind whenever I picked up a new Discworld, was the question of Whether This Would Be The Last One.

I read Snuff, and I remember thinking to myself that it was, in so many ways, a book by a dying man. I was seeing the threads of the Disc being tied up -- not ending, but rather placing all the characters somewhere comfortable. And with its callbacks to Egyptian burial motifs and the like, it jumped off the page that this was slowly becoming a case of 'any day now.'

The Shepherd's Crown, which I'm halfway through, is much more blatant in its addressing of mortality, of moving on, of tying up loose ends and handing your work forward to the people to come after you. As it was published posthumously, there's already the pall hanging over it, and not just because the words THE FINAL DISCWORLD NOVEL are emblazoned on the flap of the dust cover.

But take away the knowledge of impending mortality, and somehow even the most blatant imagery -- a man floating off a hospital bed, sketching his ideas down frantically under the watchful eye of a skull -- does not register as A Dying Man's Vision. Not until the man dies.

I remember the day the Blackstar video dropped. I was off to fencing lessons, and all my UK-side writer friends (a new clique I've stumbled sideways into recently) would see it before me and were just as excited as myself, if not more so. I rushed home after. I don't rush home for music videos. I rushed home, and I watched ten minutes of beautiful strangeness. I tried to piece it apart. I read the YouTube comments -- 'Well, now we know what happened to Major Tom' in response to the skull-inhabited spacesuit.

To my mind, it was very Dark Tower. I had thoughts and ideas, certainly, but I was more than content to just let the song and the video happen at me. An interview with video director Johan Renck talked about how the symbolism is what it is and any deeper meaning was between Renck and Bowie. It was dark, it was ritual, it certainly mused on mortality.

And then came 'Lazarus,' with a video on a much smaller scale. Bowie as a much frailer version of his blindfolded self from 'Blackstar,' lying in a hospital bed as hands reach up for him. People began trying to piece together the various characters he'd created in both videos, reading meaning from one into the other to construct a narrative.

Then came last week: his 69th birthday, the release of the full Blackstar album, the approach of the end of the run of his musical Lazarus, and (on a related but slightly different note) the tenth anniversary of the TV series Life on Mars. All at once. And then a couple days later, quietly and overnight, he leaves.

My work, and all the places my work comes from, means I have my day's news before my eyes are even completely open. I opened up Facebook and saw everyone I know sharing their favourite Bowie tracks, dotted here and there with the occasional confused 'What?' or 'No ...' It seemed unlikely, impossible, unfair, for the world to have been talking about him all at once and then to lose him. No, surely this was leftover birthday celebrations.

No, I was informed. He's gone. And it was cancer. He'd had cancer. Or rather cancer had had him. A year and a half.

My own 'What?' and 'No...' followed shortly after, just before I opened up Spotify to find that the exact playlist I was in the mood for was front and centre. I shuffled it up. 'Lazarus' came on second, and suddenly hearing 'Look up here, I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen' ... I stopped walking and cried a bit. And then I realized. He knew. He'd known. Of course he'd known. This whole time we were wrapped up in symbolism and deep analysis, we were missing the bigger picture. Just as intended until the time was right.

I don't know why it took the context of actual death to make me note just how much his shaky hand slipping off the page as he wrote reminded me of Nana's hands shaking as she lit a cigarette at her bedroom desk two months before her own cancer finally took its toll. Or why words, postures, movements, expressions, everything suddenly made complete sense in the context of my own life experiences after one event. Never once did it occur to me that maybe, just maybe, we were meant to take all this literally.

Blackstar was the album of a dying man. It was his goodbye to us. He was telling us everything he wanted to say and giving us one last gift -- doing so with the most impeccable timing I've ever seen. And, most impressively of all, we engaged with it before its meaning became clear. It was like a tiny time bomb of meaning. We took it to heart, we shared it, we got excited over it, and then one night the universe shifted a bit, there was a quiet global 'Oh,' and we understood.

I saw it said on social media that David Bowie has now even reinvented death. His exit was a stunning one: he may well be the first person ever to witness the release of his own posthumous farewell. An artist right up until his last breath and beyond. Ain't that just like him.