Mourning the Immortal – My Relationship With David Bowie Two Years After His Death
Words by Eoin Hanlon
A month before David Bowie passed away I went to Berlin for the first time. One of the main reasons I had always wanted to go was because his Berlin Trilogy is my favourite musical era of his. It felt like hallowed ground, and to immerse myself in the city where Bowie was at his most introspective and experimental made it something I felt necessary to do as an acolyte. On my third night there I asked my boyfriend at the time to walk the wall with me as it was a mere five minutes away from our apartment. It was a mostly silent journey between us as I soaked in its history and mentally played “Heroes” in my head. As we retraced our steps and grazed our fingers across the bullet holes, I shared my love of David Bowie with my partner in depth for the first time. I remember choking up about how important a pilgrimage this was for me, and how grateful I was to share it with someone I had fallen in love with. As Bowie had sang decades before, I can remember standing by the wall and kissing as though nothing could fall. It is still one of my dearest memories to this day.
I can still vividly recall the morning of January 11th 2016. I remember waking up around 7.00am to a sea of messages from friends asking if I was okay and that they were sorry for my loss. Groggy and confused, I wiped my eyes and checked to see if there were messages from my family. There weren’t any. As I went back onto my home screen another message appeared from an old friend saying “whatever you do don’t read the news today.”
I went into the kitchen and popped the kettle on, stepped into the lounge and flicked the telly onto BBC One – BREAKING NEWS: Rock Icon David Bowie Has Died. That oppressive, domineering phrase glided on its digital conveyor belt as I stared in dumb shock. My ears rang and blurred out the newscasters words while I sat there useless and grinning with denial. One of my housemates came upstairs and asked if I was okay, I barely looked at him and told him “I think so.” As he made his way to work I rolled myself a cigarette and put on his final statement to the world, Blackstar. I have never cried harder in my life (and I never got round to making that cup of tea).
I was living in Brixton at the time and instinct dictated that I had to go to his mural. My boyfriend called me and said he was on his way to meet me whilst more messages from friends expressing their best wishes and condolences pinged on a metronome. I walked down these London roads I had always romanticized Bowie walking on years past. I’d imagine him frolicking gayly with childhood friends and scraping his knee, completely unknowing and uncaring of any semblance of the icon he was to become. On that bright and brisk January morning I sobbed the entire journey with Bowie in my ears reassuring me that he was free, just like that bluebird. My boyfriend met me outside the tube station where he held me and wiped away my tears. He told me that today was one of the few occasions in which he had heard his father cry.
We crossed the road where I placed a bouquet of flowers by his shrine, skirted through waves of fans and film crews and cried again. We went for a coffee where I told him every memory I had with a man that I loved yet never knew. I tried to roll a cigarette and I was shaking so violently that my boyfriend pulled me in and held me, dropping my tobacco everywhere. Smothered in his chest, I heard a live version of Life on Mars playing overhead. I shared every fact and anecdote that I knew about him as if my own life depended on it, while Bowie’s legacy was condensed into a playlist around us. My partners patience with my pain was so generous, I’m not sure if I ever thanked him for that kindness. Three coffees down and countless cigarettes smoked, we walked back to my house to watch Wings of Desire to try and take my mind off of things. Instead I was transported back to Berlin – a world of characters filled with poetry and romanticism while fighting for love and freedom. After a morning of deep sorrow, I finally broke down.
The next day I went to the mural and listened to his debut album, and I continued to go every day for the next 25 days to listen to every studio album he had made in chronological order. I came across other fans and even three childhood friends of Bowie’s over my self imposed residency. It was a powerful and intimate space to share our stories of our different relationships with him. I cried every single day.
Everyone in some capacity has a relationship to David Bowie, almost as if he is some sort of universal truth. Everyone has that one song they love of his, their favourite persona, a nostalgic attachment to the film Labyrinth or a love for The Man Who Fell to Earth. In some cases he was a fashion icon and a queer hero. For others, he was the definitive entity that relationships between parents and children flourished from. In every case he meant a hell of a lot to at least one person that you know.
For me, he is my first distinct memory of music. I can still recall my dad cleaning the flat I grew up in listening to Hunky Dory on cassette. Queen Bitch caught my 4 year old attention and forced me to dance the way only toddlers can. From then on, David Bowie watched over my life from every mundane moment to personal epiphany and milestone. He guided me through the confusion I had with my sexuality, he took my hand and showed me a world outside of what I knew, he advised me on sex and love while I lay in bed and thought about boys, and he softly caressed me when I wanted to kill myself and convinced me on more than one occasion not to.
He has been there on the best and worst days of my life without judgement or condemnation. His work acted as a mirror of what I wanted to see. On occasion I sift through to see if he can provide me with any answers, encouragement or reassurance. No one has liberated me quite like David Bowie. It’s a relationship that is purely personal with the image and ideology of an exterior force. It is a force which entangles and embeds itself as a part of who you are as you find your way in the world. He was a voice for every single weird fucked up lonely outsider and he took us in to celebrate and champion those very things we hated about ourselves. As you can imagine, it hurts like fucking hell when mortality gets in the way of that communion – an immaterial relationship compromised by the material. It’s a confusing sensation to navigate and it is one I still wander through to this day.
Two years have passed and in that time my life has gone on, and my relationship with David Bowie has morphed in interesting ways. There is a perpetual sombreness whenever I listen to his music now. It’s not that I avoid it in denial, but his physical absence has punctured the impossible tapestry he weaved throughout his life. The scar is noticeable and distinct. It’s still raw. His music reeks of humanity and mortality in a way that confounds my superstition of what he was to me while alive. He transcended being a man, and now his music reminds me not only of his humanity, but it also reassures me of my own.
Although he has passed away, he has been in the periphery of my life as if my existence is softly determined by his legacy. I return to his songs and lyrics like scripture. But that gut-wrenching pain I felt while watching Wings of Desire on that day persists. It may be tamer, but it’ll always listen to his music with me. Together, we listen to a mortal man who sang of the infinite, who now resides in the eternal.