Several weeks have passed since the death of David Bowie and I’ve been struggling somewhat with mourning an archetypal figure that had so much personal relevance to me and seeing that reflected in people from who I feel such a vast distance. Somewhere along that slippery road are the insecurities that feed elitism and nothing about it feels pure, but in all honesty it’s there. It takes a lot to admit something like that publicly and I won’t make it a habit but this is easily the highest magnitude a celebrity death will ever affect me, short of a future where myself and the people I love are famous.
Because You’re Young
I say it often and I’ve said it even more since January 10th but Bowie may very well be the first music I heard unless you count my mother going into labor while watching The Benny Hill Show. But since we’re not talking about my love of BritPop today, we’ll say the first music I heard as a baby was David Bowie. It’s strange to think that I was born sometime between the recording and the release of Scary Monsters but this wouldn’t really be relevant to my infancy because my parents had stopped following Bowie after Diamond Dogs. According to my parents, Hunky Dory helped me sleep. They often cited “Kooks” as a song in which they saw the potential in me, their firstborn child. I’ve always been touched by the sentiment, even though I’d have been shocked if my parents had suggested in response to my frustration with homework that we simply “throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.” Regardless, some seed of creativity was no doubt nurtured in me by those early days of my life listening to Bowie with my parents.
Other than Michael Jackson (Thriller was the first record I owned) and some Beatles records, music didn’t really speak to me as a child because I was more interested in drawing pictures, reading fantasy novels, and watching cartoons. Music didn’t offer otherworldly creatures (if I only knew). There was a brief interest in MC Hammer but I didn’t feel truly passionate as a music fan until I heard Nirvana. It was around this time that my parents, feeling particularly nostalgic, re-bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on cassette. I distinctly recall trips in the car where they tried to connect with me about the glory of Bowie or the trashy lipstick smudged melodies of the New York Dolls. But all I wanted to hear was grunge. I approached my parents’ music with an upturned nose, scoffing in disgust at Bowie “making love with his eagle” (not the last lyric I would butcher). Where did bestiality fit into my middle school romances? Bowie’s world was confident and I preferred to revel in the self-loathing of Seattle’s finest.
It only took a year or two for me to lighten up and soon, headphones permanently glued to my ears, I was borrowing my parents’ cassettes whenever I could: Goat’s Head Soup by the Stones, The Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin IV, but most importantly The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust; in particular “Moonage Daydream”…a song that launched a thousand fantasy romances. This may have been around the time I began to privately style myself as a poet and true romantic amidst a sea of unrefined cavemen. I couldn’t keep it up around my friends where I’d quickly devolve into immature jokes and posturing but behind closed doors, I wrote poems for girls with whom I felt I was madly in in love and “Moonage Daydream” was often the soundtrack.
We Are the Dead
Perhaps due to my family’s avoidance of grief whenever possible, I met Kurt Cobain’s suicide with a dazed shrug and the realization that I needed to find a new favorite band. After contemplating Nine Inch Nails (who were too aggressive) and The Cure (who would become my favorite band several years later), I decided on Marilyn Manson and spent a lot of my early high school years listening to surface level goth and industrial. Eventually, this path led to post-punk and deathrock. After reading an interview with Rozz Williams from Christian Death my senior year, I proudly mimicked his statement that he didn’t follow Bowie past Scary Monsters. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t heard anything beyond Diamond Dogs (with the exception of Earthling which I didn’t really listen to much) but who was I to contradict the gospel of Rozz? He committed suicide later that year and though my late teens and early 20s would find me buying every album through Scary Monsters, I never thought to question Rozz. At that point in my life, ‘80s and ‘90s Bowie would have no doubt baffled me anyway. I couldn’t really understand his soul period and only listened to the Berlin trilogy when the mood was just right.
Things eventually shifted and I found myself completely enamored with Bowie’s plastic soul period a few years after moving to Los Angeles. I distinctly remember a period around the time of my band Peppermint Pumpkin’s first show when I was turning up to clubs and house shows wearing sunglasses and exuding an antisocial depression all to the tune of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in my head. Plastic soul Bowie was brilliant and spoke to the mannequin in me. I didn’t get what anyone else was doing and I sure as hell didn’t expect them to get what I was doing. I was suffering from cocaine confidence without the cocaine. Thankfully, I snapped out of it but I still feel a strong connection to that period of Bowie’s work due to my strange ego drama of that time in my life.
Bowie’s mark is undoubtedly felt in every aspect of my creativity, from the way I dress, to the images I draw, to the music I create, to the lyrics I write. Over the years, his work became even more vital to me, even further engrained in my sense of life. I never met the man though there was a point, less than a year ago, where it seemed like a strong possibility. I won’t go into the specifics but I actually rehearsed what I’d say to him a few times. I imagined casually walking over beside him to grab a bottle of water or something but beyond that I kind of froze. I realized then that I had nothing to say to the man except “thank you.” Just because he had changed my life didn’t mean that the gift could even come close to be reciprocated. And as if to confirm my realization, the potential meeting never came to pass.
Speed of Life
About a month before Bowie’s death, I started listening to him heavily. Maybe it was because Blackstar had been announced but for the first time, my obsession reached beyond the comfort zone spanning Space Oddity to Scary Monsters. I started with Earthling since I owned it but never listened to it, then stretched into even less familiar territory until I’d heard everything. Some things didn’t click with me that much (I’m still baffled by a lot of Black Tie, White Noise and can’t reconcile his version of “Tonight” since the version on Lust for Life was so brilliant) but for the most part, I realized that the Rozz path of not listening past Scary Monsters didn’t really apply to me. Around this time, I found myself in a hospital room beside the bed of a comatose friend, playing him “Golden Years” from my iPhone feeling nothing had the healing power and confidence of Bowie’s soul period, even though Station to Station found him transitioning toward the sounds of the Berlin trilogy. My friend didn’t make it but I still feel that “Golden Years” illuminated his journey to the other side.
There’s so much I could actually write about the death of Bowie, but in truth, it really brings me down to revisit a lot of the feelings. Instead, I’m going to take two excerpts, the first from a Facebook post I made following his death:
“I feel compelled to mention that just after dark on Sunday night, while walking with Carisa and Romeo, we heard the sound of an owl in the night. Suddenly, Carisa noticed the owl, perched majestically at the top of a dead tree and we marveled at it. I can't remember the last time I saw an owl but suddenly as we continued walking, we noticed there was another owl just a few branches away, in the same dead tree. We listened to them momentarily and felt the magic of that moment. It's hard to think that the most inspirational artist was in his last hours on earth in those moments but it also carries with it his intensity. And so I continue to walk forward in the footstep of this giant with love and gratitude.”
The second excerpt is directly from my diary:
“There are myriads of strange reactions I had to Bowie's death - moments of restlessness in bed, possibly some nightmares, re-evaluations of art, my life, my friends, and peers. But just to add a few truly moving moments: there was a point driving home listening to Low when the sky was Martian red with chalky, grayish blue clouds. It reminded me somewhat of the cover of Low and felt so inspirational. The other moving moment came when I was finally moving beyond Bowie and listening to ‘Surf's Up’ by The Beach Boys. I found a picture of a late afternoon sunset on the beach with people looking out into the goldenness - everything was either this muted, burning gold or black. The ending part of ‘Surf's Up’ was playing and I felt that Bowie was so far away - somewhere in the depths of those black parts of the ocean. It was painfully revelatory - feeling the expanse of space and time between myself and a person who had created aspects that meant so much to me. I wanted ‘Surf's Up’ to play at my own funeral because in those moments it seemed to conjure the inescapable majesty and horror of death and that seemingly unnavigable void. In that way, ‘Surf's Up’ meant more to me in the death of Bowie than most of Bowie's songs.”
Bowie was often helping me to understand life, like any talented mythmaker. Even in his final hours, he proved that neither illness nor old age can obscure the brightness of the human spirit; that there is no age limit on being a rock star. I sometimes feel insecurities at wanting to be a rock star at my age but Bowie has eased a lot of those doubts in the way that he left our lives. Anytime is the right time to be a star. As Bowie says in “After All”, “They’re just taller children.”