Since June 2015, Will Brooker has lived his life as David Bowie, adopting the singer’s personae as part of an immersive research project. He pays tribute to an icon who was ‘like us’.

I woke up on the morning of 11 January 2016 from a dream about David Bowie. That’s not unusual. I have dreamed about Bowie most nights since June last year, when I began to seriously study his life and work. It started as research for a book, but once I realised how many books on Bowie there were already, I added the angle of immersing myself only in the culture Bowie had experienced at different points in his life.

I walked the streets Bowie had walked, from Brixton to New York to Berlin

I started working through every Bowie biography I could find. Beyond that, my viewing, listening and reading were ruled by the films and TV shows, the albums and the novels that Bowie had enjoyed: from his years dreaming of fame in 1960s south London through his voracious appetites in New York, Paris, LA and Berlin in the 1970s to his championing of new bands in the 1990s and early 2000s. In order to try to gain some understanding of his mental and emotional state during key periods, I put myself through his phases and adopted his personae. I changed my diet, my hair, and my lifestyle. I shut myself in hotel rooms with only red peppers, milk, Nietzsche and Crowley books for company. I went out wearing full theatrical make-up and platform boots. I walked the streets Bowie had walked, from Brixton to New York to Berlin. And when the newspapers learned about my research in the summer of 2015, I learned something about being an international news story, an oddity for mainstream and social media to discuss and sometimes dismiss.

Twitter is an unending scroll of tributes today. Many of them cite his lyrics, which now acquire a new poignancy, or lines from his greatest film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Many take comfort from the idea that Bowie really was a spaceman, a star man, a saviour and alien who only had a short time on this earth before returning to his own people. It would be unkind to criticise anyone’s way of mourning, faced with what feels like an unprecedented loss and a collective cultural grief; although it could be pointed out that to comfort yourself with the notion that Bowie’s ‘own people’ are aliens or angels ignores the feelings of his wife, children and close friends. Many people will miss and mourn Bowie, but his family’s loss must exist in a private, intense sphere of its own.

I never met Bowie. Friends would joke to me that one day he might call me up and affably ask me to his mountain mansion for a chat, or that he’d pull up in a limo in front of me, amused by my surprise. Now, of course, I will never meet Bowie. But I’ve walked around his streets in Beckenham, stayed at his favoured hotels in New York, and sat in the Berlin gay bar he frequented with Iggy Pop. I’ve read nothing but Bowie biographies for six months, and listened to nothing but the soundtrack of his life. I’ve performed his songs with a tribute band, been introduced as him on cabaret stages and been pictured side by side with him in Spanish, Russian, Canadian and Dutch newspapers. After half a year of trying to connect with David Bowie, I have my own personal sense of him.

To me, the real wonder of David Bowie is that he never really existed. His royalties go to David Jones. Iman is married to David Jones. The whole glorious performance – a persona who invented other people, like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke – is the creation of David Jones. And David Jones was not a god, or an alien. He was just a man who constantly pushed himself: endlessly impatient, always challenging, always seeking to collaborate with and champion the most exciting people he could find in every field.

He was often gracious and generous, polite and charming – but he also behaved rudely and unreasonably

David Jones wasn’t perfect. He was a teenager who felt he should make it big, and failed for years before he found the right style for the right moment, and suddenly shot to fame. He became lonely, isolated and paranoid in Los Angeles, and collapsed in the gutter after nights spent drinking Berlin beer. He was a man who became irritated and bored in interviews, who snapped and told lies. He was often gracious and generous, polite and charming, but he also behaved rudely and unreasonably to people who deserved better. He doubted himself. He misjudged. He released bad music as well as great music. He evolved, and grew, and learned.

Ch-ch-changes

That, to me, is the lasting legacy of David Bowie. Not that he was an exceptional being who paid us a brief visit, but that he was an individual like many of us – from an ordinary home with a host of family problems – who had artistic dreams and pursued them. And he didn’t stop. He didn’t stop when he’d burned out Ziggy Stardust and exhausted himself after his first mad flare of glam pop fame: he sailed Ziggy to America and mixed him with the languidly avant-garde jazz of Aladdin Sane. He didn’t stop when George Orwell’s widow forbade him to make a musical of Nineteen Eighty-Four; he took the names and concepts, shifted them sideways and called it Diamond Dogs. When its extravagant sets failed on-stage, he abandoned them, stripped down the act and renamed the tour: he’d already moved on to Philadelphia soul. 

When a tiny audience turned up to one of his larger gigs, he invited them all to the front and gave them an intimate show. He didn’t stop when he nearly killed himself with cocaine: he crafted an epic, Station to Station, from his own paranoid psychosis, then escaped to Berlin and invented ambient art-rock. He didn’t stop when the ‘80s caught up with his pick-and-mix style, and made him look like just another stadium sell-out: as he had in the 1960s, he tried, and failed, and tried again, and kept pushing himself, even when it seemed he’d lost all but his most dedicated audience.

He was like us. He was the best of us

And now, finally, we learn that cancer didn’t stop him, either. He knew how much time he had, he wrote his public farewell, launched it with his off-Broadway play Lazarus, and gave us a gift on his last birthday.

That, to me, is the real trick about David Bowie. It’s not a secret. It’s just harder to grasp than the idea that he really was other-worldly and alien, not like us. He was like us. He was the best of us. He showed us what we could be. He was exceptional, but I believe he should inspire us all to be exceptional, or at least to attempt it; to keep pushing, to keep trying, to keep creating and not give up. And when we refuse to let our own dreams die, drift or be dismissed, David Bowie will live on.

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