We have permission to publish this post from one of our Starts at Sixty writers, Alastair.
The strangest part of working in a newsroom: you will occasionally have to act on awful news – if only for a few minutes of speedy fact-checking – before you’re permitted to completely feel it. Even when it’s the loss of somebody who you admire not only for his music, but his very existence.
The first thought that penetrates your professional numbness: a memory of 2003; sitting next to your Mum and sister at a Bowie concert, singing along with the man himself to “Suffragette City”. You will forever cherish the memory of your Mum shouting “WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA’AM”; forever brandish it as Exhibit A in the Wow, My Mother Is A Genuinely Cool Person argument. You realise that to you, the saddest part of this sorry news is the fact that she’ll have to hear it.
The walk home is far, far too short to process anything. So you keep walking. The Brisbane river is lovely. The humid air is cooling. Your fingers, acting almost of their own accord, have already tapped on your magical space-age phone and purchased Bowie’s final album – the album he surely knew would be his last – and pressed play.
It’s weird. It’s alienating. It’s inaccessible. It’s every bit as different to old Bowie as a new Bowie album should be. You find delight not in the songs, but the simple fact that he was finding entirely new things to say to the very end. The knowing references to death and afterlives and vigils are achingly sad, of course. But for the next half hour, he feels very much alive.
You keep walking, and walking, and walking. As the album ends, the final cosmic fade out is almost too much to bear. In your headphones, in this state, it feels like a one-on-one communication: a conscious, affectionate goodbye from a dying man.
Then it’s over. You’re back to reality. The little noises of the outside world seep back in: the bark of dogs, the tweeting of birds, the waves of the river. It’s gentle and peaceful and – through the muffle of the earphones you can’t quite bring yourself to remove – suddenly missing something vital.
So out comes the phone once more. You reach for the old. The familiar. The beloved. The Rock and Roll Suicides. The New Killer Stars. The Ziggies Stardust. And still you trundle along, step by step, doing an approximation of ordinary walking so seamless it has everybody around you fooled. The news has travelled far and wide by now. Is anyone else having a moment like this? That jogger? That lady with the dog? Are they all just as good at pretending? What about their mothers? Who can say?
The sun has set. The humidity has replaced itself with a chilly breeze. Your sunglasses are no longer necessary, but you’re afraid to take them off. You may still need them, having no idea at this stage how your eyes plan to react, water-wise, as you approach the end to Life On Mars.
The air gets cooler. Bowie hits his high note. Your whole body breaks out into sudden goosebumps and you secretly know that’s not the wind’s doing at all. Whatever intangible thing you were looking for in this walk, you’ve probably found it.
As you finally turn and head home, 90 minutes later than planned, you realise two things. First: you’re already writing about the experience in your head. You’ll feel compelled to put it into words. You’ll probably give it more narrative coherence and broader emotional significance than it actually had. You might not edit it; not as much as you should. You will almost certainly regret sharing it. You might not even bother to take it out of the lame second person form, which you are even now worried might seem self-absorbed.
Secondly: the song in your ears no longer carries the weight of the world. It has returned to what it always was, and always will be: good, fun music. As you wait for the elevator, “Little Wonder” reaches its triumphant, transcendent, critically-underrated second half. The doors open. You see your reflection and realise you’ve been quietly dancing on the spot. And smiling.