Weekend Listening: David Bowie
I am not qualified to write about David Bowie.
Even if you don’t know anything about Bowie, you have to know that he was one of those artists who was a Big Fucking Deal. First, you have his influences on these huge institutions of our culture, shit like art, music, fashion, journalism, those tiny things, and trying to unpack those things or even comment on them in the wake of his death in some tiny column is unrealistic. Then, too, I have read so many detailed personal accounts from friends and writers I respect who have laid out the way Bowie and his art have played in the Walkmen of their teenaged selves as they ate alone, shunned by their teachers and classmates because they were gay, or they were fat, or they were skinny…they weren’t something…they were anything.
I’m not that kind of fan. Just his discography looms over my shoulders as I write this, making me hyper aware of how little I know, how so many more people understand his significance on any level.
But still, here I am, compelled to write.
Monday I began a new semester at the rural, small community college where I teach composition, which we call ‘gatekeeper’ classes because I get the brand newest of students still reeking with the stink of prom and truant officers and parental supervision forms. Saddened by the news I’d read that morning, comforted by the tracks I’d listened to on my commute, I mentioned the death of David Bowie and reeled a little at the more than a few questioning faces I saw in my crowd. Students who sat in my classroom wearing badges of identification that made it really clear WHO THEY ARE – stuff like Beiber haircuts and Victoria’s Secret pants and John Deere camouflage ball caps – stared blankly at me as I said “Starman. The Thin White Duke. The guy from Labrinyth?”
Oh, my babies, I thought, looking out on this crowd of people decorated to tell strangers intimate details of individuality, to throw out little lifelines to people in and out of that room, to flat out just yell I am not alone in this place – you get to do that because of all the loud ass motherfuckers that came before you. Those swishy queens, those dykes in suits, those artists and poets and brave ass people who did things like Bowie did and embraced – fucking FLAUNTED – who they are and what they believe because they were unafraid, or afraid but willing to take whatever shit came their way – those are the people who blazed a path through the stars and made it okay, fucking commonplace even, for us all to wear our weirdness out on our sleeves.
To the Starman who made my students look a little different today, we all miss you. Here are the words from a few of us Booksluts in tribute.
Track: “Lady Stardust”
Album: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972 from Trident Records
Two in the morning is a dangerous time for a young person. That’s when the cops are the meanest, the people are thrilling or terrifying, and the rules are fluid. Laughing, drunk in the backseat of my friend Laura’s car, I nipped at a bottle of something cheap and probably disgustingly orange-flavored while Michael, Laura’s partner, drove us around the neighborhood streets of Auburn. Laura and I were too young to be in most bars, and Michael was patient and in love with Laura enough that he tolerated our very loud denouncements of girls who only wore one earring at a time and my predilection to lean very far out the window and maybe throw whatever I had at whatever we were passing. On one of these nights, we almost ran over a book in the road. Nothing was particularly remarkable about this book – it was about Mars, some textbook some kid had dropped or lost – but Michael brought it back to the car, flipping through pages, talking about how now we could find out if there was life on Mars. Of course not, I said, my throat closing around any further questions as they both turned slowly, staring at me.
It’s not that in that moment I suddenly became a Bowie convert. It’s that in that moment, in the backseat, I became quietly aware of my isolation in not-knowing. So many people found Bowie because of their outside perspective from the mainstream culture, but I went home that night and flipped on my computer in the dark to look up what the fuck they’d been talking about to get OUT of the mainstream and into the strange.
I found The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust on Napster, and on that night Bowie turned from the deep-voiced pop star who sang “China Girl” into this complicated, gender-defying awesome fucker. Though I didn’t know it then, I was at the beginning of about five years of studying gender, sexuality, and feminist literary theory, and seeing pictures of this dude totally NOT BEING A DUDE had me transfixed. It’s almost embarrassingly naïve, writing this now, but I just didn’t know. “Lady Stardust” is my favorite track from this album still, with this longing love the singer can’t really name, can’t really perform. Those plinky opening piano notes I have heard a hundred times, probably 15 times today in writing this, and I still call up a very young me, seeing this man with pink hair and make-up all over his face, this young me who still wasn’t sure what to think about how I kept thinking about one of my professor’s legs in that pencil skirt she wore sometimes.
This song makes me want to hold hands with that young me, with Michael who was still Sally then, with Laura, and just be there, the people we were, beautifully confused, happily shitty, perfectly strange.
Jareth is my David Bowie. Not to say he isn’t many things–and accomplished in so many ways–but I’m an ‘80s kid and if you say Bowie I say the babe with the power. I was around seven and he was the first “villain” that challenged my tiny little brain into liking a villainous character. My love for a well-done bad guy was born.
Plus, he was a male character wearing spandex, makeup, and long hair—bangs included. It certainly was never a thought process I had as a child but looking back now I can see the influence it had on my refusing to see “gender norms” as anything other than something to ignore.
It goes without saying that while the world is better off with everything he accomplished and left behind the world will mourn the loss of his genius and everything more that was to be.
Track: “Space Oddity”
Album: David Bowie, 1969 from Philips (UK)
I didn’t grow up with David Bowie. Maybe he was too “out there”, too androgynously queer for small-town Kentucky, but the radio stations I listened to didn’t spin much Bowie (or any, that I remember–maybe “Rebel Rebel” every now and then). The first time I fell in love with David Bowie was in the car with my friend Melanie, who was gorgeous and smelled of Chanel No.5 and was maybe the first person besides my husband that I wasn’t half-afraid to love out loud. “Space Oddity” struck me hard when I first heard it and I immediately put it on repeat when I was alone. It was a weird intersection of time for me: I was emerging from an isolating depression, I was growing into my identity as a recovering-Southern-Baptist atheist, I was newly married and still trying to prune toxic personalities out of my life, and the story about Major Tom going on a grand and scary and uncertain space adventure took my breath away. It was as close to a religious experience as I’ve had since I was a child.
Track: “Queen Bitch”
Album: Hunky Dory, 1971 from RCA Records
Sunday night, I’d finished up my work and decided to reopen a project I’d semi-abandoned a few years ago. I was giggling and patting myself on the back cos I actually really liked some of what I was writing and my husband was on his way home fairly early for once and I was stoked at the thought of getting to spend a little time with him before bed. He got home and we opened a bottle of wine and I decided to take one last scroll through my social media timeline before shutting down for the night. The news that David Bowie had died was suddenly a crushing weight on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I started sobbing and immediately put on “Space Oddity,” which I listened to four times in a row before I could even comment about it to anyone. Told husband, who had heard on BBC News on his way home from work. I cried and he held me. Only twice before have I had a breakdown like this when an artist I truly love was taken too soon. When George Harrison died, I was a wreck for a week. When MCA died…well, I’m still not over that. And it’ll be like that with David Bowie, I think.
The first Bowie song I remember loving was his cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger. I was probably about six and that song was everygoddamnwhere. The video would come on and the neighbour girl and I would start dancing along. She was Jagger. I, being the blondest little thing you ever did see, was Bowie. And I was cool with that. I found him beyond fascinating. His hair, his clothes, his makeup…his voice. All seemed at odds with each other, and yet made one package that was so complete, I couldn’t imagine him any other way. Luckily my uncle was watching and introduced me to Hunky Dory not long after that. The first time I listened to it, from the opening of “Changes,” oh, I was POSITIVE that I wanted to grow up to be David Bowie. With that white hot surety that little girls carry before they’ve been beaten down by the patriarchy of the playground. By the time we got to “Queen Bitch,” (which I had to promise I would never tell my Nan he’d played for me) I was certain this was the album for me.
And it’s funny how some of our first loves remain our strongest, isn’t it? If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have even named this as one of my most loved albums, but by god was it a formative album.
For a lot of Monday, I let this play while I worked and fucked around doing other inconsequential stuff. I was sitting with my earbuds in working on something and my five year old came over to hug me. As she leaned in and I leaned over, she pressed her face up against mine and said “Oooooh, what’s that song?” So I unplugged my headphones and started “Queen Bitch” over from the beginning. She danced around the dining room and asked who we were listening to. My voice may have caught a little as I told her. I asked if she wanted to see a video, and she shouted YES in my face, then climbed up on my lap. I played her this performance of “Queen Bitch,” and she pointed at the screen. “Is that David Bowie? I’m David Bowie.” My nine-year-old tried to tell her that David Bowie was a boy and she couldn’t be, but she cut him right off with an “I’M. DAVID. BOWIE.”
I took that as a sign to play “Changes” for them both next as I explained about facing the strange. Embracing the strange. And I smiled and tried not to cry as I watched them dance around to the same album I’d danced to thirty years before. Time may change me…