In the days that followed David Bowie’s death some five years ago, everyone with any public outlet was dashing around typing up a personal obituary for the man who fell to earth. But how exactly do you sum up a creature like the mercurial musician David Bowie, how do you elucidate the void he left behind, how do you even come close to encapsulating the collective grief of the millions in mourning?
It is sad when any precious addition to our dismal daily lives departs, but it was different when Bowie went. So singular was his influence it was always just nice to know he was out there, ‘taking her easy for all us sinners’, and when he left, it felt like he had taken some unspoken sparkle with him too.
But for any mourners in the UK, who just so happened to be perched in front of Channel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother, the best eulogy ever was about to be delivered from a truly unlikely source. The chaotic hilarity that unfurled in the Big Brother House that evening happened to be the perfect send-off for a star who uniquely coupled the solemnity of art with a profound sense of humour and character (ironically, he was also a huge George Orwell fan too).
It would seem that his final appearance on stage was equally befitting of the man who has often been described as a truly hilarious gent. And it’s a story that stretches back to the rise of a fellow pathos-fond comic, the legendary Rick Gervais. As Gervais remarked on the Graham Norton Show: “David Bowie was my hero for about 25 years, then I met him, and I invited him to do Extras and he said yes! It was just incredible.”
Adding: “I co-wrote a song with him – the song that we sing in Extras. I sent him the lyrics, and I called him, and I said, ‘did you get the lyrics’ and he said, ‘yeah’ and I said, ‘good, could you give me something kind of retro like ‘Life on Mars’? and he said, ‘oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a quick fucking ‘Life on Mars’ for you!’ He was amazing! Just incredible, and artist right until the end.”
However, in order to get to that artistic end, we must first revisit the start of their friendship. As Gervais describes: “The first time I met him, I was sort of newly famous and I was invited to one of those things at the BBC. The Office has just come out on DVD and I was invited by Greg Dyke the Director-General of the BBC at the time. We went to watch David Bowie with a few other people. Then after he said, ‘Oh you’re a big Bowie fan, aren’t you? Come and meet him!’”
Gervais then describes how he was nervously cajoled along with an ever-amassing army of stars present that fateful evening, including the name-dropped writer Salman Rushdie. Bewildering swept up with a handful of famous people, the green Gervais eventually nervously met the “very polite” Bowie, who didn’t know who he was. “And I remember the next day,” Gervais humorously recalled. “I was in the pub with my mate, and he said, ‘what did you do last night?’ and I went ‘…nothing.’”
Thereafter, however, Gervais and Bowie would become great friends. As he recalls: “Then I got an email from David Bowie, saying, ‘so I watched The Office, what do I do now?’ and we sort of became pen pals. Then he invited me to play a benefit in New York, my first New York gig. It was at Maddison Square Gardens, and he introduced me. The crowd didn’t know he was going to be there, and they went crazy! He just came out with a harmonica and went ‘Chubby little Loser’ and just sang the song and it was amazing and that was his last live appearance.”
It mightn’t have been the fanfare that Bowie deserved, but there is undoubtedly something very befitting about his final time in front of an audience being a coy mockery of a friend whose profile he helped to raise in the first place. This inherent hilarity simply proves that Bowie could do it all.