Bowie, Prince, Cohen & The Quiet Power Of Public Grief, By Jude Rogers
, December 5th, 2016 10:47
Reflecting on a year that has seen so many musical heroes taken from us, Jude Rogers explores how a shared sense of sorrow is far from indulgent, but might help us all through these strange and difficult times
Sunday evening, January, the tenth of the month. This year, for the first time in years, I go to bed feeling robust. Usually I find this night tough; I find the beginnings of years tough, the dark mornings and afternoons tightening like vices on the feelings I feel I have to feel. The reason is as old as the hills, and as common as people: the anniversary of a sudden death in the family. My dad died on January 11th 1984. Since then, that date has hung above me like a bell, black and heavy, ready to ring.
I'd decided this wouldn't happen any more. This year, instead of picking over old memories, or thinking about what things I had missed, I would make an effort to recognise that his life, in many ways, kept going in me. I would do something every January 11th that would get a crackle going in my senses, my endorphins racing like butterflies, get my brain cells sparking, igniting, making me feel truly alive.
I went to bed ready. I woke up at seven and turned on the radio.
2016 was the year that public grief became a different phenomenon, somehow: more dense, more relentless, more urgent in its impact. It didn't help that deaths of cultural figures kept arriving like sudden storms, lightning striking from a recently clear sky, before the endless, low thunder. It was meant to not matter. That distant figure that was always there? Well, they're gone. They were there, but now they're not. You didn't share the same air at close quarters anyway. You shouldn't feel affected or broken. After all, grief works in simple, straightforward ways.
The Thing You're Feeling About Bowie Isn't Grief, explained Spiked Online's editor Brendan O'Neill two days after the news of Bowie's death from cancer. "Grief is physical and mental pain. It's oppression. It is, in the words of the OED, 'hardship, suffering, injury'. To feel grief is to feel 'pained, oppressed'. Are these Bowie fans suffering? Really suffering? No, they aren't. They're sad." The grief police swelled in numbers, brandishing their opinions and criticisms like finely-tooled weapons. After them, came The Pool's Sali Hughes, questioning the motives of the "usual grief ombudsman, waiting in the wings…ready to pass the feelings of others through rigorous quality control." I was with her. "Ask yourself more broadly", she added, "why the sadness of others makes you feel so angry in the first place."
The most striking expression of public grief in modern times was, of course, the death of Diana (another public figure who only requires one name). Back then, I was an angry grief police officer, mocking the hordes swarming to the gates of Kensington Palace with their flowers and their teddies and their cheeks all rained-on with mascara. I didn't do the same for the people rushing to Brixton to place flowers and candles and sing songs, because I understood the logic of people whose lives were framed by music rather than the monarchy. But by the time of Bowie's death, I also understood that both were social rituals, ways of joining together after the sudden loss of someone who signified something, which felt more pressing in a society where community has become dispersed, dislocated, dislodged. "The drama both evoked and sustained [by Diana's death] was experienced by a great many as a sudden, shockingly evacuated space in the fabric of the public imagination," wrote Deborah Steinberg, on academic website The Conversation, a week after Bowie went. That connected. We never give enough credit to the idea, and the importance, of that public imagination.
When those who grieve publicly are judged to be people who don't deserve to feel loss, anger crackles. These grievers haven't got to know that other person closely; they haven't seen experienced them in everyday life; they haven't spent time hearing their voice directed just to them… but they have. I get the grief around Diana's death now, even though I still can't connect to it personally. Those who mourned her had been immersed in her story, for years, every day. They saw her as regularly and constantly as family in their living rooms. They saw her deeds on news bulletins and heard her words on confessional documentaries, however much those details were selected and shoe-shined. She provided a narrative of triumph against adversity that lay within their own, but also outside it – and then her story stopped short. She was their world on a bigger, brighter canvas. They were in it, and wanted more of it.
When a pop star that is adored dies suddenly, what they stood for and stand for is similarly relevant and real. It is relevant and real because the life of the mind, the realm in which they exist, is of incredible worth, however much their presentation is manipulated by themselves or the media. (And don't tell me that in our real lives, at the mercy of real, living people, our minds aren't regularly moulded and manipulated – and we're also very capable of moulding and manipulating our own minds too.) So when Prince or Leonard Cohen or David Bowie dies, we mourn what they did to us when we first heard them, on a deep, cerebral level. We mourn the second time we heard them, and then when we heard them again. We mourn the support that they gave us during fundamental emotional experiences in our everyday lives, and how their voices sang into our ears, and our ears alone – we allowed them to come in, and be ours.
The effect of music on us isn't just romance either: it's science. In 2009, researchers at the University of Davis, California, proved that music triggers autobiographical memory in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, helping us conjure up our past in vivid detail when we hear music we love. This part of the brain is also one of the last regions to degenerate in people who have dementia, as Hannah Peel explored on her 2016 LP Awake But Always Dreaming. It's at the core of ourselves, so of course we might grieve for those who gave it to us when it's gone.
We mourn musicians because they shared the best of themselves with us. They shared their art: those abstract, tender expressions of feeling and intellect set to word, rhythm and song, which either emerged from their mouths and their fingers like magic or alchemy, or were worked at, or finely whittled down, for them and for us. The power of these expressions upon people very often defy logic, but they often glue people together, reminding us we are made of the same marrow. Musicians like Bowie, Prince and Cohen also acted as mentors in our lives, introducing us to ideas from philosophy, painting, pop, religion, sex and other cultures; they were guides at pivotal moments, educators in the languages of love, life and ageing. They were our lovers to whom we gave consent to do things to us, who made our pulses race, who helped us grow older. We gave ourselves to them, and they gave us moments that challenged us, soothed us, transformed us, transformed us, without us even imagining they could. They gave us the greatest thing of all: the life of the mind.
And grief is this, absolutely: the life of the mind. Grief is the process of wanting to share more, and be more, with people who are no longer here. These people can be people with whom you share air, or people with whom you share the same spirit. And grief is about a communication of ideas and feelings, a dialogue, suddenly stopping, becoming a monologue when you didn't want it to. It is about the parts of yourself that you want to let out, the parts you want to return enriched and renewed, suddenly hitting a wall. And in a year like 2016, we were all hitting walls. More than ever, we needed to communicate with ideas we believed in more urgently, more relentlessly, more densely. This is why we publicly grieve.
When Bowie died, I didn't ache like I did about my dad – of course I didn't. But I did grieve. I know Bowie fans who'd had sudden bereavements in their lives feeling similar deep feelings, remembering other guides and mentors no longer around in their lives who performed similar roles.
Hearing Bowie's music on the radio over the rest of the day, I also suddenly saw my life in tiny moments. I saw me at 10 watching Labyrinth, slowly realising I was straight in my sexuality but not particularly conventional. I saw me at 17, on a Swansea bus on my own, 'Changes' playing on my Discman, a thrilling realisation of independence kicking in. I saw me at 21, newly in London, my shabby basement bedroom being the beginning of a brand new narrative of escape and adventure. I saw me at 25, at Wembley, seeing him, knowing the best that we could all be. I saw me four days previously, listening to Blackstar, feelings its magic, its alchemy, its whittled work, my endorphins racing like butterflies, my brain cells sparking, igniting.
After Bowie died, listening to Blackstar felt like that heavy bell had come back, and it was ringing. Another reference to his life, or to death, would make it ring louder, deeper and darker. As the year raced horribly on, so many other things rang loud, deep and dark, more important things pulling away at the fabric of our dislodged, dislocated world.
One day in November, I stood in an auction house in central London. Bowie's art was there, on display, about to be sold. As I walked round, my senses crackled like they hadn't for months: here were things of beauty and humour and cleverness and playfulness and love. Here was Bowie's mind all laid out for us, so many ideas that fired his imagination about boldness, disruption, loudness and quietness, so many abstract, tender expressions that could be communicated with – and I realised, that here was a dialogue that could still carry on. I could go home and spend time with those ideas, see more, listen more, learn more, fight against the monologues weighing down the world that can stall us and crush us, thinking of the people we have physically lost, and the things we have lost, and remember the life of the mind is still there, and the power it still has to change lives. All our lives. I left the gallery wishing it was January 11th, walking into the light. Let it be January 11th always, a day to be truly alive.