One doesn’t often find people of faith, especially conservatives, rallying around an entertainer who became famous for dressing up as an androgynous rock-star named Ziggy Stardust, singing, “Rebel, Rebel,” and pushing musical expression to its outer limits. And yet, when David Bowie died last month of cancer, at the age of 69, Christians were among the first to send out their condolences and tributes.
Born and raised in South London, Bowie was a precocious child who took to the arts naturally, and immersed himself in music and dance. After seeing him entertain audiences when he was just nine, teachers marveled at his talents, and said his artistic interpretations were “astonishing.” His performances as a teenager were described as “mesmerizing . . . like someone from another planet.” When young David announced to his parents he planned to become a pop star, they quickly saw to it that he was hired as an electrician’s assistant. Needless to say, that phase of his life didn’t last long, and Bowie went on to become one of the most iconic British artists of his generation.
Enigmatic in life, as he now is in death, many continue to misread him. According to Spin magazine, which celebrates alternative music and lifestyles, “Bowie was all about sex: He exuded it, he defied it, he refused to conform to its norms.” Many of Bowie’s harshest critics would undoubtedly agree. But this is to take a very selective view of his career, overlooking Bowie’s best work, and the dramatic changes he underwent as he matured.
Space Oddity, his first great song, is about many things—space travel, the wonders of the universe, isolation, and the fear of losing touch, not just with planet earth, but with reality itself. The mellifluous Changes is about defying expectations, and setting your own course in life, regardless of what critics think. The stirring Heroes is a Cold War love story about two people determined to lift each other up, despite the oppression and hopelessness around them. And Fame, co-written with John Lennon, is a cautionary, even caustic, tale about celebrity, and its fleeting enchantments. None of these classics are “all about sex,” but deal with issues far more significant than Spin imagines.
That Bowie’s songs often conveyed an implicit, if not overt, spirituality is a fact mentioned by many who remembered him. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s cultural minister, wrote an entire column on the Christian themes in Bowie’s lyrics, notably in his album, Station to Station, when he was suffering through a painful period of addiction, and wrote the stunningly beautiful, Word on a Wing, which contained the prayer: “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing/and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.”
Even as he wore a cross in some of his most popular videos, Bowie explored many other faiths, and never became a committed Christian, or joined any organized religion—on the contrary, he often criticized its hypocrisy and abuses. Still, he was a man who “never stopped searching for God,” as the Cardinal put it, as powerfully seen in one of his final songs, Lazarus—so it’s not altogether strange that Christians would feel a kinship with him.
As difficult as it is for Bowie’s critics to comprehend, his music didn’t invariably confuse or mislead people; it often rescued them. Many people are hurting, don’t have the luxury of growing up in stable families, and often find music their only outlet to survive. In that vein, Bowie’s song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide—ostensibly about the collapse of Bowie’s stage persona, Ziggy Stardust—meant something more for anguished fans. One of them wrote:
This song literally saved my life. I was spiraling down, fast, cutting myself, contemplating suicide. Everything. One night listening to my iPod on shuffle I was considering ending it. After ten years of depression, who needs one more? I’m only 17, and I felt my time was up. Then this song came on. I wasn’t paying attention really because I was writing a suicide note, then as I’m ready to slit my wrists, I hear, ‘Oh no love! You’re not alone . . .’ and after that I broke down and cried and thanked God for that message being given to me when I was about to end it. If I had one thing to say to David Bowie, it’d be thank you for saving my life and helping me get onto the road to recovery.
Bowie underwent his own recovery as well. His 1980 song Ashes to Ashes was not only a well-crafted song, but described his fight against addiction, and the personal demons that had haunted him during the first decade of his career.
As he matured, he gradually won those battles, and became a different man. He kicked his drug habit, and became close to his son (after the unfortunate breakdown of his first marriage) and adopted a more hopeful outlook.
After famously announcing he was gay and bisexual, he took those statements back, saying they were “the biggest mistake I ever made,” because—in actual fact—“I was always a closet heterosexual.” He then married the Somali-American model Iman—first in a private ceremony, and then in a Church service, because he believed their “real marriage, sanctified by God, had to happen in a Church.” They had one daughter and, by all accounts, were very happily married for twenty-four years, right up until the day David died. He had settled down and become a family man, once saying that if he had to choose between his marriage and his career, his marriage would win hands down.
Bowie may have been a rebel, but his rebellion cut both ways. He could say and do some outrageous things, but just as easily startle people with his conservatism. In 1977, at the height of his most avant-garde period, Bowie sang a wonderful Christmas medley with Bing Crosby, combining “Peace on Earth” with “Little Drummer Boy.” Asked to explain why he took part in such an old-fashioned venue, Bowie explained, “I’m doing this show because my mother loves Bing Crosby.”
Even more startling was Bowie’s spontaneous, public, and very serious recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at a memorial concert for the late Freddie Mercury—before 70,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in London. It was one of the most unforgettable moments of David Bowie’s career, and that he did it in a heavily secularized country which famously doesn’t like to “do God,” in public, made it all the more courageous and poignant.
When he was a youngster, and just becoming interested in music, his father brought David a collection of American 45s by artists such as the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Upon listening to the latter, a whole new world opened up to him, and the budding superstar exclaimed, “I had heard God!”
Now that David Bowie is no longer with us, one hopes his search has brought him peace.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.