The Thin White Duke at 65: Reflections on David Bowie’s 65th Birthday

By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on

That’s right, the Thin White Duke became eligible for Social Security on Sunday, Jan. 8. And I’m sure I am not alone in saying that news of Bowie’s 65th birthday struck me the same way news of Billy Idol’s 50thbirthday did back in 2005: Age is not something that was supposed to happen to David Bowie, not to a guy who made his name as a kid sporting a dress and orange hair in the streets of New York City and calling himself Ziggy Stardust.

But those were the days when androgyny was the new sexy, and these are the days when CNN reporters take their cameras into the streets after the death of Elizabeth Taylor to ask passersby for thoughts on her death and find that many of them, particular younger people, either couldn’t possibly care less or just say “Who is Elizabeth Taylor?” These are the days when the reverence once held for yesterday’s rock gods is so vulnerable to postmodern cynicism that the Flaming Lips can drop a song called “Is David Bowie Dying?”

Now, there actually is plenty of precedent for that kind of thing—remember that LA Style track called “James Brown is Dead” in 1991, when Brown actually was alive and well and would be for the next 15 years? Remember the record Townes Van Zandt dropped in 1972 called “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt?” when he too was very much alive and well at 28 years of age? Van Zandt already was great by then but he wouldn’t join the late ones until New Year’s Day of 1997. When The Lips carried on this tradition with “Is David Bowie Dying” last March, most people dismissed it as more of the kind of weirdness we expect of the Lips, but maybe it was much more than that.

To read any number of forum or blog posts on Bowie from the past few years is to think the reason he hasn’t made an album in nearly a decade, the reason he’s hardly even bothered to be David Bowie, really, with the exception of making an appearance at an Arcade Fire gig here and there or at a red carpet event with Imam, his supermodel wife of 20 years, is that the man’s health is so dire he’s dangling from the last thread of his life. Wholly unfounded speculation abounds about whether he may be terminally ill, or whether he has retired which, for the sycophants clamoring for a comeback on the occasion of Bowie’s 65th birthday last week, is far worse than terminal illness—because it’s about us, of course. Because if Bowie is physically able to entertain us then damn it David Bowie where the hell are you? What are you thinking? What are you doing with your life? Don’t you understand that you’re ours?

It’s like Lester Bangs said in his story on the death of John Lennon back in 1980: “Once you’ve made your mark on history those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.” So rather than entertain the entirely plausible possibility that at 65 years old David Bowie has earned the right to not give a crap anymore, or that he’s got an 11-year-old daughter at home he might like to get to know before he dies, or that the thirty years of unrelenting recording and touring he put into being David Bowie since his Ziggy Stardust days is not the way he cares to live out those golden years he sang about back in ’76, no, no, the only possible reason he could have gone this long without entertaining us is–that’s right–he must be dying.

Maybe I am giving the Lips too much credit here; maybe they were just being the weirdos that they are. And yes, David Bowie did undergo heart surgery after experiencing chest pain on stage in Germany in 2004 that forced the cancellation of the rest of that tour. But even so, that Lips song, whether intentionally or not, does force us to confront the absurd incredulity with which we receive news that the false gods who shaped the culture we were born into might be just as transient as the rest of us, that they, too, will get old and die. Let’s be honest; when we gasp at news of Bowie’s heart attack or his turning 65, we don’t do so out of concern for David Bowie. We do so out of concern for ourselves, because we’re watching our own lives slip through our fingers just as we always knew they would but, as John Lennon put it, we were busy making other plans.

The Daily Mirror ran a feature on Bowie’s 65th birthday in which Bowie is seen ducking in and out of a bookstore in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of lower Manhattan unnoticed, seeming to savor an anonymity he could not have imagined he would ever enjoy even ten years ago.

“Browsing the shelves in the fashionable McNally Jackson bookstore in New York’s SoHo,” the Daily Mirror’s Barbara McMahon reports, “a man in a grey overcoat and flat cap barely merits a glance from other shoppers.

“A regular customer at one of the few independently-owned bookstores left in the city, where he mostly buys books on art, the man exchanges a few pleasantries with the staff before buying, on this occasion, a couple of DVDs.

“Then he ducks back out to the busy Manhattan streets and disappears anonymously into the crowds.

“Hardly anyone has noticed that the man with the computer bag slung casually over his shoulder is David Bowie, the godfather of glam rock and one of the most enigmatic of rock ’n’ roll legends – and that’s exactly how he likes it.”

You can read the rest of the story at the Daily Mirror’s website here. The bottom line is this: The closest Bowie has come to resuming his recording career is jamming with his 11-year-old daughter, Lexi, in their living room; other than that he’s more interested in chilling with the fam than chilling with tens of thousands of strangers in a packed auditorium near you.

So no, he is not dying; he’s just not going to play the monkey to your organ grinder at 65 years old, especially not after a heart scare eight years ago and decades of alleged drug and alcohol abuse have put him in a place in life where he realizes more than ever that any given day could be his last. So why spend what time he has left busting his ass for you? As one of Bowie’s friends put it in McMahon’s story, “there’s no great secret agony or fear of failure that has led to this. He finds the reclusive rocker tag very amusing.”

Imagine that, David Bowie more interested in amusing himself than in amusing you. Well, clearly then, he must be dying, right? I mean, what other reason is there?