I started getting misty at the top of the stairs. Somewhere in between dehydration and Mick Ronson’s ending licks on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” I decided: this really sucks.
At the same time, my friend Hannah was texting her boyfriend the news: David Bowie has died from cancer. Her boyfriend’s first question: “Is Tommy going to be okay?” Tommy was huddled against 10 million strangers, trudging through the 9/11 Memorial on the walk to work, and weeping over an androgynous guitarist older than his father. Tommy was not okay.
It’s hard to explain such a visceral reaction to someone I have never met yet have grown up with like a family member. So I’ll start with the beginning.
Bowie happened his way into my life at the right time. My latter half of high school seemed like a new life. I was bored, taking bad photographs and regarding rock ‘n’ roll as an education and a welcome rebellion.
If this all sounds like a far-fetched deleted scene from Almost Famous, let me assure you: I had the fullest intention of it being that way. I thought of my life as a calculated adaptation of whatever identities I saw on television or heard on a recording. My journals at the time are loaded with this intentional crap. Recreational vegetarian, American anorexic, surrealism hunter: the amount of labels I created kept pushing back the one I really wanted: acceptance. So of course I fell in with Bowie, who in all of his guises seemed to have it all figured out, to the point where I actually put myself into trances with the hopes he’d visit me in a dream and give me advice about how to live my life.
I loved Ziggy for its outrageousness, the yelps, the squeals, the grungey snark of the guitars, the gender-bending way Bowie’s voice sounds and how everything seemed like a joke before the sincerity of the time kicked in. Hunky Dory felt so sincere and, even as the singer “was sinking in the quicksand,” self-assured. “Heroes” offered you a hand into a future without politicized lines. And Diamond Dogs, well, there’s that cover.
He did it all with so much confidence, but soon as I had one shade pretty comfortably pinned on, there are places that point at a new direction, which makes his catalog incredibly rewarding to move through (and I’m still working on it!). He said that there’s always one song on each album that plays out in full on the next one. “Queen Bitch,” the loud, penultimate song on an otherwise folk-heavy Hunky Dory, is the teaser for Bowie’s next three years as Ziggy Stardust, that star who’s going to let all the children boogie.
All of which takes me back to my original realization while gripping the insides of my coat by the 9/11 Memorial: he’s always been able to sniff out what was next, which makes his seemingly eclectic catalog seem almost like it’s telling a story. Listening to his music, it all echoes itself in a way that makes you kind of wonder whether he’s had this narrative in mind all along.
He became my personal icon once I realized how liberating it is to embrace the openness of your own life’s narrative and how weird it totally is. Your story can go from white lines and Nazi conspiracies to silver pants and kicking it with the Muppets. Because why not?
He taught me that it’s entirely possible to be a wild youth. And that you can still be the coolest person in the room as you get older. It defies the whole “hope I die before I get old” tenet of rock ‘n’ roll, doesn’t it?
Bowie’s influence is like an older brother, or even a parent, where they shape you and then expect you can go out and function without being too screwed up. Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist is all about pilfering what worked for other people. Naturally, Bowie makes an appearance, saying, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from.” Through experimentation in identity, you eventually find something that fits when you’re out on your own. And that’s you. And after trying on so many airs, it’s very liberating to be yourself. As liberating as that “Moonage Daydream” guitar solo.
Somewhere by the memorial fountain, I was right where I started. I never thought this day would happen so soon. I’m sorry I never got to let him know just how much I appreciate all of this. I suddenly felt 15 and lonely again, wondering about life on mars.
The future now has this vague glimmer, a pretty star that Bowie’s holding out for you in the form of some incredible music. He’s always been ahead of the dames, and as always, he’s moving further into the future. I know I’ll catch up with him and his poems soon. Until then, I’ll keep his most important promise.
“Oh love, you’re not alone.”