Sunday, January 24, 2016

Losing A Hero (Part II) R.I.P. David Bowie

Scientists found a new planet in our solar system. We have nine planets again. The new planet appeared after the passing of Earth's own Starman, David Bowie, leaving many us to believe that this artist has joined his place amidst the Stardust.

This is the second attempt at capturing what it means to lose this human being form our current timeline. It was written within the first few days after his death, and has not seen any revisions. I have plans to write more, but feel I need to get something out there, to join the many voices in mourning. Please let me know your reactions in the comments.



I’ve never lived in a world without David Bowie. Until now.

“It feels like we lost something elemental, as if an entire color is gone.”*

I was not quite nine years old the first time I saw David Bowie. He performed “The Man Who Sold the World” (and two other songs) on Saturday Night Live, encased in a large plastic shell, a constructed suit with puppetry parts. Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias stood behind him, in stark stage makeup and monochromatic dresses and tights. I had never seen anything like it. These were people blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, between masculinity and femininity, between art and life. David Bowie redefined what was possible.

David Bowie inspired me to be my most creative and curious self and to live life as art.


I was born in the future. The year I was born was the year that Soyuz first successfully docked onto the Space Station Salyut (but unsuccessfully re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the first in-flight death of a human cosmonaut). It was the year that Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange was released, as well as George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138. It was also the year that DAW Books was founded, a major publisher of science fiction, which I would read much of, in the years to come. 

Fresh off the Moon Landing, NASA was the shit. Astronauts were the coolest people on the planet– because they got off the planet! The first Star Trek series, while already cancelled and off-air before I came along, was gathering a cult following in syndication. I was raised on reruns of Star Trek, along with The Jetsons, and the quirky morality tales of Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone. My mother instilled in me a love of the fantastic, a sense of endless possibility, and the power of imagination.

In early 1978, a year before I saw David Bowie on television wearing a dress and looking like an alien, my mother had taken me and my brother to see Star Wars. Space was where it was at! It was where we were headed. Flying cars, vacations on the moon, technology to make out lives easier and give us more leisure time awaited. If not in my mother’s lifetime, surely in ours, no? In the future, we would evolve powers of the mind and intellect would rule. Racism, disease, poverty, colonialism, and intolerance would all be in our past, or something we encountered on backwards little planets. 
David Bowie was from this future. He sang about Astronauts and Outer Space, Other Planets the End of the World. It was all Stardust and Style. I wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t an actual extraterrestrial– he seemed inhumanly thin, pale with narrow jaw, not unlike the “greys” depicted on Whitley Streiber book covers and onscreen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He had one blue eye and one brown** eye, a large forehead, and an incredible talent for music. He must be part-faerie, or alien, or something, to be so unlike the rest of us, I thought.

I didn’t get to listen to his music for many years. My house was full of music, but not his. There was Doo-Wop, Motown, Classic Country, and a lot of novelty music. My mom introduced me to Elvis, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Carpenters, but nothing so edgy as Bowie. My part-time older brother was into Triumph, Rush, and AC/DC, nothing so weird as Bowie. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who listened to David Bowie. Not in my extended family, not at school, not at my friend’s houses. I didn’t know about Billboard charts, modern radio, or how the music industry worked– I didn’t discover contemporary music until I was given a transistor radio at age ten. Every once in a while, there might be a mention of David Bowie on television, but it seemed rare.

This was in the late seventies, mind you. There were three television networks and PBS (which we didn’t even get) Cable TV was in its infancy, and nothing I would see in my own home for decades. There was no internet or home computers or anything to connect you to events and people outside your immediate lifestyle. It wasn’t sixth grade that I saw music videos on MTV at my new friend Karen’s house. 

The visual appeal of music videos was immediately influential. Soon, there were music videos available on NBC's Friday Night Videos. Two hours a week that I dutifully recorded with our new VCR, cutting out most of the commercials. A lot of the bands making videos were British, and I soon rediscovered Bowie. Stunning stories set to music with surreal scenes and costumes impressed me in videos for Loving the Alien, Ashes to Ashes, and China Girl. In fact, I think my affinity for Asian art and music began with Bowie, who explored and exposed us to it. 

Bowie was on the frontlines of New Wave, and the Second British Invasion. Not only was he there in the forefront, but all the young bands by his side wouldn’t have existed without his influence; bands like Duran Duran, The Human League, Culture Club, and others owed their existence to Bowie’s paving the way. 

Then came The Hunger. Holy cow, did this movie change the lives of a million teenagers in the eighties, me among them. David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve are the ultimate otherworldly power couple as charismatic, upscale vampires in New York City. The opening scene is a club, set to a song called “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by British post-punk band Bauhaus. Can I even begin to tell you the number of ways this film affected me? 

  1. I fell in love all over again with David Bowie, this time with all the dedicated passion of a teenager instead of a fickle child. He had the most erotic speaking voice, and of course, the most perfect imperfections that make for the best physical beauty. He played the cello in The Hunger– the most gorgeous haunting pieces by Schubert and Bach. Therefore…
  2. I fell in love with the cello. I bought tapes of Bach and Schubert and Yo-yo Ma. I became aware of Bauhaus. I loved the dark, minimalistic, epic song used in the film. I immediately made my mom drive me to a record store that carried imports, so I could buy their records. They were very expensive, so I actually shared the ownership with my best friend. We split the purchases and made cassette tape copies of the albums so that we each had them to listen to.
  3. Within a decade, this band would be hailed as a pioneer of what was to become the goth subculture. Those of us who were devotees at the time referred to this style as death punk. This darker side of New Wave became Gothic Rock, and I loved it.
  4. Vampires. Long, long before the two-dimensional characters of Twilight, there was The Hunger. This cultural phenomenon was compounded by the 1985 release of Anne Rice’s novel, The Vampire LeStat, the sequel to 1976’s Interview with a Vampire. These monsters were superior creatures to mere mortals: Intelligent, immortal, sleek, and sexy.
  5. Acceptance of bisexuality and non-traditional gender roles. Bowie had already been pioneering the cultural shift in this area, but watching the very beautiful Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve) love both male and female characters resonated with me. Miriam was immortal; she had evolved beyond the limitations of a patriarchal and limited society. This made sense to me. What difference does the physical body make when it comes to love? It’s the person inside the body that matters. 

While I , myself, am mostly drawn to men, they are often androgynous or effeminate men. And I am not bothered by finding a woman attractive, either. These, too, are usually androgynous: the tough look of Joan Jett or Patti Smith. I am most attracted to the gender of Rock ‘n’ Roll!

The point is, I could accept whatever came along. I didn’t feel tethered to the same conservative rules of sexuality that had been in place for decades. David Bowie invited me to question my gender identity and sexuality, in a way that I don't think many non-hetero, cisgender people do. As a teenager, I had nearly as many friends identify as gay as straight. I felt no judgment or negative attachment to transvestites, and knew both gay and straight drag queens. (Transgender wasn’t as yet as common a concept in the mid-eighties.) 

Bowie wrote his own rules, and created a life model rarely seen: no compromises, artistic quality and authentic exploration above all. Just knowing that he was out there doing his own thing meant that any of us could do the same. I’ve not always made the best choices in my life, but they’ve been my choices. I studied art and music on my own terms. After high school, I lived in England. At twenty I picked up and moved to Seattle. I followed my instincts, talked to as many artists as I could, and lived my strange little life as artistically as I could muster.

Several years later when I met James, the man I would marry, one of the first things we found common ground on was our adoration of and attraction to David Bowie. We recognized this kindred connection that spoke to our deeper selves. Loving David Bowie was shorthand for sharing the ideals, beliefs, acceptance, and ambition of being creative, unique, and true to yourself, despite the opinions of those lesser, inferior conformists around you. Bowie fans were weird.

There didn’t used to be an internet. Sometimes, you were literally completely alone in your ideas. I sat alone in my room listening to Bowie records. I didn’t know how to find out when concerts came to town. It was an effort to get to record stores and find the records to buy. When you found a kindred spirit over an artist, you found a fast friend.

So, yeah, when Bowie came to play the Tacoma Dome with Nine Inch Nails in 1995, James and I considered canceling our wedding, set to take place the same week in Maryland. We would have scheduled around it, if we had known soon enough. Neither one of us had ever attended a Bowie concert, and it would have probably been more of a sign of our commitment than the family-attended wedding, but it wasn’t the choice we ultimately made. 


*Quote taken from Carrie Brownstein's Twitter
**Bowie suffered an injury in a fist fight as a youth, causing one eye's pupil to lose the ability to dilate, resulting in the appearance of two different colored eyes. In fact, both irises are blue.

...more to come...

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