As the script suggests, I got the call to give this talk on the Monday morning we heard about Bowie’s death. The drill for giving these ‘Wednesday Words’ is that the producer phones on Monday and talks through ideas which are then written up through Tuesday so that the final version is agreed in plenty of time. It was felt that with my musical background I’d have something to say about this towering figure so they called me and I was delighted to have the opportunity to reflect on his influence.
Only last Friday we were celebrating the 69th birthday of the legendary musician David Bowie and the release of a new album, Blackstar. But early on Monday morning came the shocking news of his death followed by a remarkable outpouring of grief, respect and admiration from people of all ages and backgrounds.
Listening to politicians and personalities as well as my own friends, what has struck me most of all is the sheer diversity of people’s reactions to this event and I think this bears witness to the tremendous breadth of Bowie’s musical and creative innovations and achievements.
I’m old enough to remember the strangeness and mystery of his first hit Space Oddity in 1969 and the outrage of my parents at his Ziggy Stardust persona in the early 1970s. Tonight, I’m rehearsing in a new band with a lady who worked with David Bowie in one of his videos. I know that the experience changed Penny’s life and she is inconsolable.
Listening to his final album in the light of his death it seems to me that Bowie was thinking as he made it of his imminent departure from this world. It is musically at the cutting edge but lyrically it is open in dealing with spiritual themes like despair, fear of the future and perhaps the hope of breaking out of the physical torment of cancer. One of the songs is called Lazarus – a reference to the biblical character raised from the dead by Jesus – and it includes the lines, ‘Look at me, I’m up in heaven. You know, I’ll be free.’ It is written as it were from beyond the grave.
Bowie is on record as having explored many religious traditions including Buddhism and Christianity – a 2003 interview suggests that he was not quite prepared to call himself an atheist. His influence on spiritual people is clear, though. The archbishop of Canterbury spoke of listening endlessly to his albums in his youth while at least one cathedral organist has chosen to play his music in services over the last couple of days.
Not everyone has an opportunity to think about leaving a legacy in the way David Bowie did and to make a statement about it as a work of art. But maybe we can all imitate Bowie in embracing new challenges and exploring our potential in all areas of our lives. Perhaps then we will be able to leave this life fulfilled.
And I’d like to finish with a tribute from, of all people, a Roman Catholic Cardinal – Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, who tweeted lyrics from Space Oddity: ‘Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown, engines on. Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.’