What We Can Learn from David Bowie
I was on my way to Vegas when I read the news that David Bowie had died. I was hurtling through the pitch black desert in the middle of the night, the outlines of the Joshua trees flashing out of my peripheral vision. I put my favorite record of his, Station to Station, on and spaced out. I knew he had put out a new record and celebrated a birthday only days before. I sat and tried to think of a more actualized person. What an accomplished life this guy had right up to the end, he even died in style. When someone that special lives and dies before you, I feel there are big lessons you can learn from them. I decided to stop getting nostalgic and put on his last album, Blackstar. I was immediately struck by just how good it was on first listen.
I had avoided modern Bowie up to this point. I really hadn’t bothered with any albums that came after 1980’s Scary Monsters… and Super Creeps. It’s a thing we tend to do with artists that have a classic high point, we tend to disregard their later material because it seems that there is no way they could ever live up to what they once were, as if they all become shadows of their former selves. But that’s not always the case and I was foolish and a bit lazy for ignoring material he had been putting out for the past 35 years. Blackstar is excellent, it’s just as good as his classic albums, on par with the Berlin Trilogy — Low, Heroes, and Lodger. The videos for Blackstar and Lazarus that were shot for it are eerie and have so many layers to them, we’ll be picking them apart forever. They have been sticking with me for days, honestly. I haven’t been able to get them out of my head.
As the days after his death wore on, I kept thinking of him and how he died. He died of liver cancer, which tends to hit men over 65. It’s likely that little could have been done to prevent it. I had heard rumors a while ago that he was having a series of heart attacks. It all made sense now. They were probably from complications with the cancer. That could have been anyone. We all get older and die. These things happen, but it doesn’t take away the dread and the empathy, the sorrow and the loss.
I sat in a weird hotel in the Nevada desert watching the Lazarus and Blackstar videos and my eyes would water. It felt like losing some kind of distant father figure. I had just come out to Vegas with a friend on a whim. I had the next few days off, so I figured what the hell, might as well. The bleak desert landscape in the January cold, glazed our adventure with a mournful vapor. No matter where we went or what we did, Bowie’s memory was always there and with it, the constant reminder of my own mortality and the mortality of those I love.
I’ve always been kind of weird. As an artist, I’m pretty weird. I always enjoyed the juxtaposition of strangeness with elegance and class. I first got that from Bowie. He showed me at an early age that you could be an oddball, a weirdo, and still have some class and dignity to you. Being weird wasn’t a bad thing. It just meant that you were probably bored with the way things normally work and that you wanted to do something more interesting. He showed me a way to back up your strangeness with a kind of regality and that helped to give me confidence.
Driving back from Vegas, I put Blackstar on again and listened to it in its entirety. I reflected on Bowie’s life. We all have to die. The trick is living right. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, mapping it out and I believe there are three major life lessons we can all take away from him.
You’ve probably read a million times now how much of a “musical chameleon” Bowie was. Of course, it wasn’t just his music — his style and image changed as well when he took on new personas. This way he never got stuck in a rut. He was good enough at what he did that a persona like Ziggy Stardust will live on forever, long after he was “retired.” Though Bowie himself never became, the “Ziggy Stardust guy” or the “Let’s Dance guy”. He was always moving forward, always innovating. Bowie was also notoriously well-read and kept up with things happening in music up to his dying day. This is an important trait we can all take on as well. Never get stuck in the past. Always be aware and mindful of what is happening in the present, stay informed. The world is always changing. Fighting change is useless. Nostalgia can be a trap, playing into it too much can become pastiche. The best and wisest thing to do is embrace change.
Embracing change is also about becoming more fluid as a person. Once you have your core moral foundation down, it’s important to not be too stuck on any certain identity, especially your occupation, as so many of us do. We tend to identify ourselves too much with the kind of car we drive, the kind of phone we use, the kind of computers we buy, the clothes we wear, our hobbies, our friends — we get lost in it all and miss out on what’s really happening in life. These identity markers ultimately weigh us down and keep us stuck instead of evolving and focusing on the truer aspects of life like beauty, knowledge, wisdom and love. So it’s best to simply accept the impermanence of everything — including your personality — and go with the flow.
Be smart with your money
Back in the late ’90s, I remember reading Bowie was the richest musician in the world at the time. I was a little shocked. Bowie definitely had been on the charts, but I didn’t think he would be so far ahead on that list. I wondered why. Then I read about his business savvy. When he signed his first recording deal, he agreed to take less money up front, then negotiated to get his masters back when the time came, gambling that his records would be worth more later. That paid off very well for him.
In 1997, he started Bowie Bonds, bonds that were tied to his music catalog and underwritten by the firm, Fahnestock & Co. It was a stock of 55 million dollars in 1,000 dollar denominated bonds. The securities carried a 7.9 percent interest rate and fully matured in 15 years. Bowie went on to use some of that 55 million dollars to buy out his share of his old RCA masters. He also had a 15-year licensing deal with EMI which gave him 30 million dollars, which he used as credit enhancement, which worked as an asset to finance the deal with the bonds.
I’m sure there were lots of advisors and people telling him what to do here, but nonetheless, he could have pissed his fortune away any time he wanted. He took his wealth and made himself more secure, which helped him greatly in the long run. When his health began to fade and he couldn’t go out and tour anymore, he was still more than able to live comfortably and leave enough for his children’s children to live on.
I know most of us will never ever see that kind of money. But what we can take from it is this — be smart with your money. Don’t go out and blow it. Don’t use your credit card irresponsibly. It’s important we make wise investments when we’re in the position to do so. It’s important we understand what will just be junk in a few years, like pricey clothes that will go out of style soon and the latest technology that will only look silly and obsolete as time passes. It important that we not spend money on things we can’t afford and learn to live within our means.
The amount of charities and advocacy Bowie was involved with can be a bit daunting. That’s only the stuff that went above the radar. Bowie was among the first to call MTV out for not playing videos by black artists in the early 80s. For the minimum amount, he allowed his song ‘Heroes’ from his 1977 album of the same name to be used in the 2009 documentary, The Cove — a film about the horrendous dolphin slaughter in Japan. He was also involved in AIDS research, women’s campaigns and campaigns for children in war torn parts of the world, namely Africa, just to name a few.
Obviously, most of us don’t have anywhere near the resources Bowie had. Some of us have neither the time nor money to give much or anything, that’s fine. The lesson here is to remember to be a good person. The key is to be kind, treat other people the way you would want to be treated and if you happen to have the resources, to give back. Be what the Jews call a “mensch” — a person of integrity and honor. I’m sure Bowie had his problems, like everyone does. That’s okay, the trick is to transcend them as best we know how by being good.
The man was a great, big shining light. He also happened to be an excellent artist and performer. The sheer avalanche of tributes and articles written on the man are telling of just what an impact he really had. This was a truly a special person who lived an amazing life. When someone like that passes on, it’s a good idea to reflect on their life, see exactly what it was they did right and incorporate that into our own lives.
Ryan, your talent for expression never ceases to amaze me.
All very good observations. I think I can relate to it. Bowie’s ethos may have indeed rubbed off on me at times, following him as intently as I did.
Allow me to recommend another late period album that has been compared to the Berlin era: the soundtrack to ‘The Buddha of Suburbia.’ He has said it was a personal favorite of his, and he practically did it solo with only Erdal Kizilcay and a little bit of Mike Garson. There are some wonderful ambient pieces and a few quirky, catchy pop sons, just like Low.
Thank you, Hans! I’ll check it out!