David Bowie died this past Sunday. Like many, I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death. His music has been an influential part of my life, although not always in the forefront.
Honestly I had forgotten just how much I liked his work until a couple of years ago, when I had the opportunity to see a retrospective of his life called David Bowie Is while visiting friends in Berlin. The exhibit was laidback and intimate and left me smiling and grateful that I had had the opportunity to revisit the work of such a remarkable human being.
Whether you liked his music or not, there is much David Bowie has taught us about how to live life well.
1. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. David Bowie was not an overnight success. Unlike the famous quote where he said “I am an instant star. Just add water and stir,” his success was far from instantaneous. At the age of 17 he released his first single and no one noticed. It was only after five years of almost constant failure and disappointment that the press took note of his 1969 song Space Oddity.
In the current age of instant gratification and Internet fame, many of us think of success as luck, rather than a product of hard work and determination. In reality, the road to success is more like a marathon, and not a one hundred yard dash. And as anyone who has every even contemplated running a marathon knows, it is not always fun or easy easy and is often painful and full of emotional ups and downs.
Bowie refused to conform to what was popular or considered to be acceptable at the time, and yet he succeeded. Bowie remained true to himself and believed in himself even when no one else did. In other words: if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.
2. HAVE A SENSE OF ADVENTURE. When the next person writes a book about Bowie’s life the title certainly won’t be The Predictable Tale of David Bowie’s Monotonous Existence — it will more likely be something like The Exciting Escapades of David Bowie’s Wild and Adventurous Life.
If they were to write a story about you, what would your title be? The title to my book probably falls somewhere in-between. My life contains long stretches of boredom (or busyness) but it is also interspersed with moments of utter joy and silliness.
I admit that I am a bit of a creature of habit. I like my coffee a certain way, I practice the same yoga asanas week in and week out, and I follow the same route when I go for a run. My routines are comfortable and comforting. As humans we tend to resist too much excitement even as we long to live a more exciting life. Living an exciting life sounds great in theory, but it’s a bit daunting when faced with the possibility of actually doing something to make it exciting. The nice thing about taking risks is that amazing things can happen.
The trio of albums Bowie mostly recorded in Berlin – “Low”, "Heroes" and “Lodger” are, in my humble opinion, among his best. He moved to Berlin in order to change his routine in a big way - in this case to kick a drug habit.
But there was much more to his Berlin adventure than just setting up shop in a different city and changing bad habits. There, inspired by his surroundings and working with lifelong collaborator Brian Eno, Bowie’s music became more sonically courageous.
You don’t have to move to a different country to be adventurous. You can take a class that you never considered taking before, travel to someplace you’ve never been, try new foods, or take up a new hobby. Who knows what you will end up learning and enjoying.
And finally, 3. EXPLORE WIDELY AND BORROW PROFUSELY. Bowie wasn't just a genius at picking people to work with, he was a master of integration. He was fearless when it came to taking bits and bobs of things he liked from here and there and re-imagining them in his music and personas.
In an interview with Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC Radio 6, Bowie talked about how a one-time Elvis impersonator Vince Taylor became a role model for his Ziggy Stardust character. "I pieced together bits and pieces of other artists and they all became this rather grand, stylish lad, Ziggy."
Anthropologists call this acculturation. I try to live my life this way – bringing together the best ideas and traditions from various cultures that bring meaning and joy to my life. For example, my children have always set out boots for St. Nicholas to fill with fruit and candy on December 6h, even though we aren’t Catholic and don’t live in Europe where this is common place. During a gap year between high school and college and my first Christmas in Germany I set my boot out along with everybody else. In the morning it was filled with nuts, and chocolate and oranges. The memory of finding these gifts makes me happy and takes me back to holidays spent with friends and family that are among the most meaningful of my life. And now it is part of my family’s cultural heritage.
So, while I am sad that David Bowie is no longer with us, I am grateful for his music and for the examples he left of a life well lived. His sense of adventure and curiosity even extended past this life when he said, “I don’t know where I am going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.