It took me several years to get David Bowie. Even now I’m not sure I do. Perhaps because my teenage years in the late eighties coincided with a lean period in his career (between China Girl and Tin Machine), or because the gaudy otherworldliness of Ziggy Stardust seemed almost calculated to alienate an achingly self-conscious teenager who sought solace in the grinding industrial chords of New Order’s Substance 1987 album. The darkness in the cartoonish imagery and the richness of his imagination occurred to me later. He made connections that others couldn’t see, like a chess player spotting the possible mate 12 moves ahead. He linked Earth to Mars, Ground Control to Major Tom and Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads. He tracked the changes, and wrought them. He blazed trails few people could trace, let alone follow.
Many of the tributes focused on his experimentation and ceaseless reinvention, but despite the range of his career the songs are instantly recognisable as Bowie. Nobody else could have recorded them: they were rooted in that distinctive voice, a melodious croak that trembled like a flower. His face, too, changed little beneath the make-up. It had a kind of timeless beauty, the face of a visitor from another planet; only the final photographs betray any trace of the illness that was killing him.
My first reaction when I learned of his death was to wonder why he had kept his cancer so fiercely private. It was his business who he told, of course, but contemplating the question might help us reflect on how we deal with disease and death. Bowie was an artist who spoke through his work, so I can well imagine that he had no wish to have it overshadowed by a public dissection of his health. He would be judged by his records, not the response of his body to a chemical onslaught. He didn’t live to be consumed by disease: it would do its work in its own time. He gave the lie to the old cliché about living every day as if it’s your last: such a miserable concession to fate was not for him. His colleague in New York, the Belgian theatre director, Ivo van Hove, said he fought and worked like a lion. The fight was not against cancer, but for his work. To a true artist that’s all that counts, in the end.