The recent death of David Bowie struck me rather hard. It’s not that I was the biggest fan. Don’t get me wrong, I loved his music. I’ve cherished The Ziggy Stardust album, for example, for decades. But I never saw him in concert. Sadly, a week before he died I signed up for updates on his website, so that I could learn of concert dates when they appeared; I knew he was releasing a new album, and I was determined finally to see him live.
No, his death was symbolic as much as anything.
I grew up in the seventies. I was in diapers or not long out of them when the trio of Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin were lost to alcohol and drugs, so I could love their music and romanticize their lives and deaths as only a teenager could.
If those three and their kin were our roots (as far as I knew; I didn’t discover the blues until later), then the gods of my youth were the ones who survived the sixties (the Stones, Dylan, Zeppelin, Clapton, Neil Young), and those who followed in their trail (Aerosmith, Van Halen, Springsteen—and then, later, U2).
In a very real way, those of us growing up in the 70s experienced quite deeply what Nietzsche referred to as the death of God. All the old ways of understanding the world and of finding meaning and value were lost—the summer of love was over, and Vietnam, the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate had left the country shaken and us empty and doubtful. Certainly, the older generations still clung to their values; they went back to work and to church and held fast to whatever was left of the idea of the American dream.
That wasn’t an option for us—sure, we’d go to college and end up getting jobs, having careers, but it wasn’t like we believed in any of it.
I’m not saying that any of this was necessarily conscious, a fully-formed idea in our heads; certainly, in small town Ohio I didn’t go around spouting quotes from Also Sprach Zarathustra (okay, when I was in college I did). Rather, the feeling, the experience formed the background and context in which we grew up.
What filled the void for many of us was Rock music. To some, that might sound stupid. To those who experienced it, it’s a truism. Rock music was the closest thing we had to religion. It was uplifting. It made us strong, gave us community, and a vocabulary. It was the voice of our rebellion, our collective scream, a big “fuck you” to the world. It didn’t give us hope exactly; I’m not sure that was possible any longer. But it drove our lives, gave us spines, became the soundtrack to the stupidity and wonder that is youth.
(As Nietzsche says, “I would only believe in a god who knew how to dance.”)
At this point, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I passed through youth and into adulthood with a feeling that wasn’t formed into a conscious thought or articulated—else I’d have had to reject it as ridiculous—that somehow those icons would always be there. They were our gods, after all. And they lived on and grew older—but they were there when we needed them.
There were some exceptions to their ever-presence in our lives, of course. We lost John Bonham and Freddy Mercury way, way too soon, for example. In Freddy’s case, that was heartbreaking, but I was also coming of age and passing into adulthood in the shadow of AIDs—talk about messing up your early sexual life (we were all convinced we’d get infected the first time we screwed)—and so Freddy’s loss was devastating but understandable. He’d fulfilled the rock and roll imperative to live hard, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.
But the others, well, they just had to be there for us when we needed them (not you, Phil Collins; you can go away).
I confess that I don’t listen to much Rock music any longer. I mostly listen to classic Jazz (Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy) and composers like Beethoven and Bach. There’s something comforting about knowing your icons have already turned into distant memories; there’s no danger of losing them.
So the loss of Bowie is symbolic; his death means the death of another god—one of the gods of our youth. They won’t always be here for us. (Nietzsche was right: “Gods, too, decompose.”) And if they die, it means we must also. That’s another truism, but I honestly didn’t need another reminder of my mortality.
Thank God we’ll always have Keith Richards.