Pure Imagination

R.I.P. Gene Wilder. Your expressions, words, and films have been a part of my personal lexicon since I was a kid. You’ve brought me joy.

Here’s a piece of that joy, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


Pure Imagination

Something happened on the day he died

Bowie died on my birthday this year, January 10th. Thankfully, I didn’t find out until the next day, so I didn’t spend my birthday crying on and off, prostrate on my couch listening to a mix of his songs that I found comforting, made years ago (I called it “Anodyne Bowie”). Bowie’s own birthday was two days and 32 years before mine.


I mention my birthday not just because it was an awful coincidence that I’ll think of every year now, but because, like me, Bowie was a Capricorn. I’m not a horoscope fanatic, but through his songs, interviews, and persona(e) generally, I closely identified with his Capricorn-ness, traits of which include reserve, remoteness, pragmatism, ambition, and determination. (I’m too lazy for the last two.) I responded to his Major Tom and Thin White Duke personae especially: Want an axe to break the ice, he sings in “Ashes to Ashes,” a sort of future “Space Oddity.”


In a recent Rolling Stone article written after his death, Bowie is quoted describing his enchantment with the Catskill Mountains: “I love mountains […] I’m a Capricorn. I was born to be gallivanting on a peak somewhere… I was never a Woodstock-y kind of person, at all, ever. But when I got up there, I flipped at how beautiful it is.” I was born in the Catskills and lived there until I was almost six. My late grandmother had a house there that my family visited in the summer and over the holidays; this house was about half an hour from Woodstock, which we loved to visit. There was an artist’s colony, at least one recording studio, and later I learned Bob Dylan had a place nearby. The idea of Bowie making an album or living in the area, where I might have encountered him, makes me giddy, if bittersweetly now.


The closest I ever came was seeing him live in Philadelphia in my twenties, when he was on what turned out to be his last tour, for the album Reality. An androgynous woman next to me had binoculars, and I asked to borrow them. Bowie was right there. I was so delirious after his performance, I didn’t care to stick around for the next headlining act, Moby. During the car ride home, I felt drunk on the experience.


Bowie released his last album, Blackstar, on his birthday. I’d already watched the eerie, mysterious videos for the title track and “Lazarus.” Given his lack of public appearances and live performances the past decade, I’d been worried, as a fan, about his health. I knew he’d had a heart attack and bypass surgery. A few years before, I’d been relieved when The Next Day came out. He was okay, and he was still making music.


Listening to Blackstar those three days before he died, I thought about its ominous images and lyrics. It’s hard to ignore a song called “Lazarus,” whose video begins with Bowie in a hospital bed, singing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” The video for “Blackstar” contains references to previous periods in Bowie’s music, videos, and film work, but that’s nothing new for an artist who continually moved forward and valued the new while revisiting past personae to transform or comment on them.


I thought to myself, laughing, that Bowie would probably live forever, like Keith Richards: someone who’d done a lot of damage with drugs and drink but came out the other side. I wondered how I would react when he did die, surely a very old man, probably still charming when he smiled, and forward-thinking. I imagined I’d be sad, but how sad? My strongest point of comparison in terms of being a fan was Kurt Cobain, who died when I was 15. I’d been more shocked than anything by his death, despite public knowledge of his health problems and substance abuse. I shared my grief with friends, all of whom loved Nirvana, and practically my whole high school. I watched tons of MTV and listened to Courtney Love read Kurt’s suicide note.


Before Kurt’s death, I listened to Nirvana for maybe two to three years. I’ve known David Bowie’s music my entire life; even if I count from when I truly became a fan, around my sophomore year of college, that would still be almost twenty years. Yes, I was sad when he died, even sadder than I anticipated. I was wrecked the whole day, but I couldn’t share my grief in quite the same way as I had with Kurt Cobain. I have friends and family who liked Bowie, but no one I’d call a fan. (Only since his death have I learned that my best friend was turned onto him by me; she texted me recently that she’d been listening to Ziggy Stardust and crying.) Those who know me well enough messaged condolences or shared things related to him; it’s strange to receive condolences for the loss of someone you never met.


Change is Bowie’s legacy, something difficult for a typical Capricorn—the stubborn goat. But the goat has a fish tail that suggests fluidity, a hybrid being comfortable on land or in water. As a writer I’ve always valued change and frustrate and challenge myself with its imperative. It’s a preoccupation; how can I move forward, produce something different than what I have before, if not in subject then in style? How can I—someone often paralyzed by and fearful of change in my life—be a chameleon, as Bowie was?


Last week I began reading an article in the latest Writer’s Chronicle on this very subject. The author contrasted her desire for artistic change with the way we often love other writers because we recognize something of them in everything they write. She expressed an interest in recurring dreams, a parallel to the obsessions that carry through in our writing. This made me feel better, encouraged me to reframe how I think about my writing. However, as a reader of poetry, I am more demanding of change across a poet’s oeuvre. Poets I once loved no longer dazzle me in the present if their craft remains the same, if it hasn’t changed with me. This is an unreasonable expectation, and I’ve learned to read poetry that engages me NOW before my tastes change again.


Or was I spoiled by Bowie’s music and career? Even in reflection Bowie is not nostalgic; his rare backward-looking manages to be made into something new. I can be as demanding of the musicians I listen to as the poets I read, and Bowie never disappointed. If I have an idol, a patron saint, as an artist, it’s him. It devastates me to think he’s no longer walking the earth, making things, but I’m profoundly grateful for all he made

Something happened on the day he died