We Can Be Heroes: What David Bowie’s Last Years Teach Us About Aging and Reinvention

bowie On January 8th, David Bowie released his 25th full-length studio album, Blackstar. Many of its songs had already been released, including the haunting new single “Lazarus,” whose video shows Bowie in a hospital, often floating above his bed, before retreating into an armoire. Jan 8th was also his 69th birthday, making it a truly remarkable day in music history. On Sunday night, David Bowie died, of cancer, a sickness he had been battling in private for nearly two years.

Tributes and genuine grief poured in from around the world. People were in a state of stunned mourning about the loss of this incredible genius, this true artist. David Bowie had been in the public consciousness for nearly 50 years, and for a huge amount of people, there hasn’t been a world without him. In retrospect, all of Blackstar, and especially “Lazarus,” was this man saying goodbye to all of us. It’s not just a goodbye, though: Bowie wasn’t teaching people to die. He was, once again, showing us that no matter how old we get, there is always time to grow. Life is a constant exploration.

Bowie and Blackstar: Never Slowing Down

It is incredibly difficult to watch the “Lazarus” video, knowing that he was talking about his own death, and not feel. And much of the discussion around it, and its brilliance, is in reference to it being an incredible farewell. This is right, and good, but there is more to it: Blackstar is an incredible album—period. It is vital, weird, allusive and illusive, deeply expansive and expansively deep. It explores both lyrically and sonically, and while he has had very few fallow periods, it hearkens back to some of his career’s most fertile times. The album isn’t getting good reviews out of respect for his passing: it was rightfully considered a triumph before people even knew he was sick.

This is remarkable and inspiring. Bowie was recording this while he was 67 and 68, and not relying on old sounds or tired tropes. This isn’t a regurgitation of greatest hits, or a carefully marketed retread over familiar territory. This is more like the later albums of Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash or BB King: artists who never stopped pushing themselves to greater heights, and who never stopped taking risks.

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising in Bowie’s case. After all, this was a man who embraced gender fluidity long before we even knew that was a term. He shifted his styles around to echo the times he was in, without being derivative. He influenced generations of artists by never resting on his laurels. But if you look at his later period, he isn’t just an influence for musicians: he can be an influence for anyone who is aging, and unsure of how to continue embracing the world.

Face The Change: Aging Doesn’t Mean Standing Still

If you are pining for youth I think it produces a stereotypical old man because you only live in memory, you live in a place that doesn’t exist… I think ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.

   –David Bowie               

The popular conception of aging is that it is a time for calcification, and retreating into ingrained habits. And to be sure, there are some things that we’ve done for decades because we like them. Growing older isn’t about becoming someone new; it is about recognizing that there is always more of the world, and of yourself, to explore. It’s a time to develop new interests and expand on those you may not have had time for before. It’s about taking your experience and building on it, and knowing that you never have to give up finding new and astonishing things just because you are getting older.

So what can you do? Here are a few general tips for embracing aging.

  • Accept that life is different. This isn’t a bad thing; it is a liberating understanding. Think of the rockers who still strut around in tight pants in their 70s doing the same songs. That doesn’t have to be you. Accepting that there are different limitations and possibilities means being able to work within them to the fullest, like Bowie, whose songs about aging were a beautiful way to accept and embrace these changes.
  • Figure out what you want. That sounds very simple, but it is crucial. Once you know who you are, you can think about your goals for the next five or ten or twenty years. Do you want to finally read Proust, or see the Serengeti, or be the grandmother that her grandkids will fondly tell their grandkids about? Knowing what you want to do is the most important step for achieving it. Think of Bowie who, for decades wanted to write songs for the theater. Finally, he did. The Off-Broadway show he wrote the music for, Lazarus, debuted in December to huge critical acclaim.
  • Take risks and be flexible. When we’re young, we’re not afraid to fail, even though the consequences might follow us for decades. When we get older, we get more risk-averse. That doesn’t always make sense. No one thinks you should cash out your life savings to put it all on black or take up freestyle wall climbing. But you have the freedom, maybe for the first time, to take real chances with trying new things. You don’t have to say, “This isn’t something I’d ever do.” You can say, “This isn’t something I’d ever do…before now.” In the last few years, Bowie helped curate a huge traveling retrospective of his career, full of original and tangential art, which was riskier than a normal “greatest hits” show, but one he was eager to take on.

In the courageous way he faced his illness, without public spectacle or ritualized self-pity, Bowie will be seen as an example of how to die. But as with anyone, we shouldn’t let the curtain overshadow what came before. As Blackstar showed, Bowie was still doing weird and beautiful things until the very end of his life. He embraced exploration, and never let not being a young man anymore slow him down. He didn’t repeat the same mistakes, nor the same triumphs. He always followed his bizarre and brilliant and sad and lonely and warm and expansive and idiosyncratic and universal muse. In that way, we can all be like Bowie. No matter what age we are, we can always be ourselves.

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Institute on Aging

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5 thoughts on “We Can Be Heroes: What David Bowie’s Last Years Teach Us About Aging and Reinvention

  1. May I tell you how much I loved this blog post? As a Bowie fan, and as a sexagenarian (gee, I love that word), this so resonated for me. Thank you for this, to remind us all that we can continue to live exciting, productive, imaginative lives, as we age with grace into oblivion and beyond 🙂

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