David Bowie in His Labyrinth: ​Personal Essay

For me, David Bowie wasn’t an ageless celebrity to rival the likes of Madonna or Bob Dylan, but a strange, god-like figure. The type of celestial being whose career spans generations of eccentricity and experimentation, existing on the fringes of mythology, never quite a part of the mainstream pantheon, but always there, nevertheless, as an extravagant showman with several nom-de-plumes to his credit and an androgynous wardrobe. The kind of god who keeps popping in and out of the stories we tell our children, sometimes reversing the roles, sometimes disappearing for pages on end, and occasionally reinventing the stories themselves. Like the man on the subway you encounter almost every day without ever noticing him, so that in your mind he’s not really a man at all, but part of the subway itself, a permanent fixture in an impermanent world.

The part of me that’s really given into conspiracy theories likes to believe that Bowie isn’t really dead at all, that the whole dying-of-cancer situation was an elaborate hoax, that just like Elvis Presley, he’ll soon be sighted at some shady New Mexico bar, or discovered in some quaint, old-world European town, as a handsome old man, with an eclectic dressing sense, checking into a hotel under a variant pseudonym of Ziggy Stardust.

In fact, a few days before the news of his death hit the headlines, I was reading an article about him and wondering how he was that one musician whose name I had known since childbirth, yet I had never really listened to his music with the same intensity I reserved for all his contemporaries, of how my iPod always had a song or two by him which would play only on shuffle mode, of how he and his glittering, psychedelic universe always existed in the back of my mind, but I had never (until now, that is) looked closely at before. I remembered how much I’d loved “Labyrinth” as a kid, and how happy I was to find out that he was still alive at the end of the film, and how I would write novel-length sequels to the unfinished story of Sarah and Jareth, believing the whole time with a childlike conviction that Bowie, among other things, was truly and incredibly immortal.

When the devastating news hit me, I was in the subway, returning from college, jostling for space in the crowded compartment, many miles underground from the world I knew.

It was as if, the universe had been catapulted towards a time-flip or something. Certain details, irrelevant now, seemed to be shoved into my peripheral vision. I remembered the winter sunlight dancing off the edge of trees lining my college’s entry gate, and the surreal, sunless world of Jareth’s kingdom, lit by some kind of burning, elvish light. At that strange moment, I was sure I was Sarah, who’d jokingly wished her baby brother to be whisked away by the goblins, appalled by the severity of her mistake.

Only, of course, there wasn’t really a labyrinth I could solve in 13 hours to retrieve what I’d lost, nor did I have any Muppet-like fantastical companions to accompany me on the quest. I was inside a train, lonely, in a compartment filled with people I couldn’t care less about, hurtling through space to return to a world I was familiar with.

But of course, no matter how much you try, you can’t ever return to the same place. Not because you have to navigate a labyrinth to get there, but because even if you do, the place will never be the same. I can only return to the surreal fairytale world of Jareth and Sarah as a different person, aware that some things have shifted to an inevitable conclusion. The barn owl that now flies away at the movie’s end is more melancholic than the one I saw flying away, years ago on a sunlit afternoon when I knew the lyrics of “As The World Falls Down” by heart, and imagined an androgynous dream lover singing it to me.

To be honest, I could cite more credible reasons as to why “Labyrinth” fails as a film than explain why I’ve always been particularly fascinated by it. I guess that the only explanation that would make sense is the film’s ambiguity. The Goblin King is certainly not the hero in the way Sarah is the stereotypical, if somewhat bland heroine, but he isn’t the complete villain, either. Jareth lords over the goblins, but he isn’t one of them, and he is much too beautiful to be a human. When Sarah and Jareth dance in that exquisite, Cinderella-esque masquerade sequence, with Bowie’s magical voice humming promises of gold mornings and Valentine evenings for his beloved, all the barriers of convention and conformity seem to break down. They are two souls who truly believe they are in love with each other in that present moment, despite their history and the roles they inevitably have to play, minutes into the future where the world crumbles and the dream love mutates, only to languish unrequited.

For me, the story’s tragedy lies not in Sarah’s refusal to be Jareth’s queen but in her refusal to ultimately believe him to be the all-powerful Goblin King she had earlier imagined him to be.  When Bowie utters the heartbreakingly poignant line near the end, “I can’t live within you,” his face is one of deep melancholy and loneliness: a man who has not only lost himself, but also his entire universe that constructed his identity. He is dead, not because he is physically dying, but because nobody else believes in him anymore. The death of an ancient god when one mythology is replaced by another.

Bowie, unlike Jareth, knew that this is how gods truly die, which is why he was always a shape shifter, constantly switching between genres, fashions, and alter-egos, reinventing his identity over and over, till his dying day. Which is why he will never truly die, because gods are ultimately immortal and have their own mysterious ways of coming back, but never in the ways we expect. Even when the world falls down, the show must go on.

But it is not the same show. It will never be the same show.


Previously published in Quail Bell Magazine
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