Amiss: I was wrong about David Bowie.
Derek Webb steps slowly through the gray tones produced by black-and-white film. Fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, his falsetto—barely louder than a door swinging on hinges—floats to mingle with fine particles of light and dust in the air overhead.
I was wrong, I’m sorry and I love you, he sings.
Early moments from a video for his 2013 song capture context, spilling like poorly-kept secrets from the songwriter’s heart.
“All growing up, I heard there were three things you had to learn to say to keep any relationship going,” Webb says before invoking both the song’s title and its refrain. In that eight-year-old clip, he palms those words like a small, sacred key; hope for the ties that bind Christ’s church, the only words it has any right to offer the world.
Some readers know how the story goes, how Webb left his former sanctuaries. Reading another life with the charity we can muster, perhaps the overwhelming desire to breathe out repentance and love lifted Webb from the pew and through the back door. Although he and I embrace different directions, different destinations, his song still holds sway.
Three words I need to say so you believe that I love you: I was wrong.
I tiptoe through the rooms of this world, enveloped by a similar gray. Most days, I long to find three precious words on the lips of politicians, pastors, people on Twitter or across the church aisle. Everybody wants to raise their voice in “I love yous.” Few realize that “I was wrong” sometimes says the same thing.
Whatever relationships I honor—with my wife and son, my students, my readers—feel sacred. I hear myself in Webb’s bridge, fearing “I have misled you / I have misread you / I’ve cared too much and not enough / In the same breath.”
So to keep the relationship going—and keep myself from shuffling away—I pray for a few moments to shift in my seat, to move into the clear on unsteady soles, awkwardly braiding my confessions and apologies. Three words I need to say so you believe that I love you: I was wrong.
Grant me the grace to go slow and start small.
Nearly everyone knows this cycle: shrugging off an artist others adore, then watching the clouds part and a halo attend the same figure. The singer or poet never changed; they kept their cool, waiting a few paces ahead. After a thousand new-morning mercies, you caught up.
I owe more than a few sheepish nods. The Rolling Stones never drew my ire, only my indifference. Jack Kerouac edged up next to me, frothing over all his friends who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” And whatever strands of DNA I share with Wendell Berry sent my eyes rolling.
A record needle skipped inside, and I realized rock and roll is a community, not a competition.
That was back when my definition of love involved picking sides, and I pledged allegiance to the Beatles. A record needle skipped inside, and I realized rock and roll is a community, not a competition. Today my heart makes room enough for Keith Richards’ seedy guitar shapes and George Harrison’s mystic verses. Trusted voices like Nick Ripatrazone introduced me to the threadbare loneliness of lives Kerouac documents in Big Sur or The Dharma Bums. Reading his words more like a sinner’s prayer, less like chest-beating, I saw myself on the page.
My sighing breath pushes hard against my ribs at thoughts of another artist I missed for too long. I was wrong about David Bowie.
Bowie shifted shapes and shed skin before me; he flung himself—and listeners—toward the farthest reaches of what we know. And I replied in shrugs and yawns.
His steeliest sounds left me rummaging closets for the warm, present tones of my favorite songwriters. The interstellar imagery of “Space Oddity” and “Starman” overshot a kid obsessed with turning over every stone to reveal the realistic.
I dug the dangerous grace of “Modern Love,” expressed in giant drum sounds and saxophones hot to the touch; still, the song seemed an aberration, a devil’s-advocate argument for an artist who otherwise left me cold. “Heroes” brushed up against something romantic, something aspirational. But, like a true ‘90s kid, I preferred The Wallflowers’ Godzilla-size version.
Everyone requires a guide to the rooms they walk right past. Several artists condescended to take my hand and usher me into Bowie’s presence.
Andrew Osenga pried my heart open with his record about the loneliness of astronauts; the strangeness of The Flaming Lips and Twin Peaks—a world Bowie himself inhabited—stripped away my most conventional wisdom; I leaned into the dissonance of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; and suffered with Radiohead as they drowned under waves of alienation.
Young people across eras heard themselves in Bowie’s hot tramps, suffragettes and rebel rebels. Stubborn, I needed to breach my early thirties, to hear more and hurt more, before appreciating that he was as real as they come.
Advancing into the cold black of adulthood, often unable to make out the hand before my face, I finally found kindreds in Bowie’s starmen, navigating the expanse. He entreated burdened bodies to dance through wartime, and my mind and body flashed back together—to times my hips moved me toward poems, paintings, and pours of gin. Anything to shake off the sins of this age.
Bowie and his subjects pray for life here or on Mars, for the promise of true, fleshy life together anywhere.
Wherever Bowie grounds his songs, people are dying to sink into sleep and surprised to rise again the next day. They reach through every shade of blue and black for the warmth of another hand. Bowie and his subjects pray for life here or on Mars, for the promise of true, fleshy life together anywhere.
I know these people and their rhythms; gathering us all for midnight communion, Bowie passes around enough bread and wine to get us through till morning light.
As if I needed further proof, Bowie left us with 2016’s “Blackstar,” seven swan songs recorded in the valley of the shadow of death. As a benediction, “Blackstar” trembles but also rests, acknowledging death’s sting but refusing it the final word. Bowie left the way he came—singing baritone, surrounded by space, distortion, and saxophone. There he acknowledges once more that life, love, and grief exist both as elusive mysteries and the fullness of reality.
If I could be wrong about David Bowie, who else might I be missing? Thankfully, the songs he left offer so much of what we need to sound out common sins and meet each other where we are. Somebody else led me to Bowie; maybe Bowie will lead me to you.