It’s taken me a little while to process the passing of someone whom I’ve never met, and yet who had a profound impact on my life. I did not know Mr. Bowie, and I never saw him live, but I’ve known who he was since I was seven years old.
Today I’d like to tell you about David Bowie’s influence on me, what it means to have lost him, and how I came to terms with his loss.
The Early Influence
My mother and her mother-in-law did not get along, so things were often tense during family visits. I can’t explain why they never found common ground, but they never did. Suffice to say, dinners, holidays, and special occasions were often tense affairs. Her interactions with me were especially stressful, as I always got the impression she just didn’t like me very much.
So when she called my mother one day in 1986 with an offer to take me to a movie, I wasn’t that thrilled. “She wants to take you to see Labrith!” my mother said (And to this day she remains unable to pronounce the word labyrinth, for some reason). “She says it’ll be right up your alley!”
I didn’t know what my alley was, but I wasn’t moved. If I could avoid spending time with my Grandmother, I would. I was a shitty grandchild but it wasn’t an ideal situation. And I realize now my mother was really trying to please her, and that it was very kind of my grandmother to offer to spend time and money on a child she didn’t actually like.
“But it has David Bowie in it!” my mother went on. “And it was made by the man who does the Muppets and the man who made Star Wars.”
I didn’t know who David Bowie was, but I sure as hell knew who the latter were, even if I didn’t know their names. I agreed to go.
The rest is history.
I’ve written at length about Labyrinth in this blog, so I won’t beat that particular dead horse again. When it came out on video, I rented it frequently with my allowance. That VHS version of the movie had a trailer for The Name of the Rose for some reason (because if children love anything as much as Muppets, it’s medieval murder mysteries wherein the dialectics of the Catholic church are unpacked by investigators practicing the logic of Pre-Christian philosophy) and would influence me, much later, to start reading Umberto Eco.
At slumber parties, my friends and I would dance to the songs of Labyrinth. I remember stuffing a pillow down the front of my shorts to emulate the famous bulge, and all of us dissolving into hysterical, adolescent giggles.
The Middle Influence
At 15, I started exploring music. Prior to this, my tastes were limited to what my parents liked, so I listened to a lot of light 80s pop like Genesis, Billy Joel, or oldies. All the kids in my freshman year were listening to alt-rock like Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden and while I liked that music, I didn’t love it. For Christmas I asked for, and received, some CDs. They were:
- The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
- Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- The Soundtrack to Interview With the Vampire
Rock and Roll Circus was exactly what I expected, because I had seen the movie on VH-1 and was already familiar with it. I asked for Ziggy Stardust because I wanted to hear more of Bowie’s music. I thought it would be similar to his music from the movie.
Ziggy Stardust was something else entirely.
I wish I could say that I heard Ziggy Stardust and fell immediately in love with Bowie’s music. That I was instantly a lifelong fan, that I connected immediately and felt that a long-empty void in my life had been filled. The truth is, none of that happened.
Bowie’s plaintive voice displayed a vulnerability that I, having been bullied and made fun of through much of school, wasn’t comfortable with. His songs about the pain of being an outsider were resonating, but in a much deeper way than I’d anticipated. I was used to rock and roll being about macho posturing, about hiding vulnerability by barking and acting tough. Bowie’s songs and the fearlessness with which he faced the world put me off. I put the CD away and didn’t listen to it for a year.
During that year, I went to a viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture show. I made a lot of new friends. One of those new friends was a girl from Ukraine who would go on to introduce some of the great classical philosophers to me, as well as the experience of a person born abroad facing life in the United States. Other friends showed me other facets of life, and I started to feel more secure, and realized that outsiders too, can have friends. Our differences brought us together, to coin an overused phrase.
So I gave the album another listen. And another. Soon, I was hooked. But I didn’t rush out and buy every album. Bowie’s music hit me so deeply that I had to take it a little bit at a time.
David Bowie’s music is something I return to, again and again, and I’m still finding more of it. It’s rare that I’m not in the mood to hear a Bowie song, and in fact Under Pressure is a song that will ALWAYS pull me out of a dark mood. Modern Love is another. Cat People. China Girl. Heroes. Changes. You Remind Me of The Babe. His covers. Anything he did was guaranteed to affect people, whether they liked it or not.
I was having a hard time with his death. A local radio station played a tribute that made me cry so hard I had to pull off the road. Thinking about his work being finalized – with no more entries of music or film – made me even sadder.
Then I watched the Lazarus video.
And I saw a man coming to terms with his own death.
I don’t know what the original intent of the videographer or Mr. Bowie was. Maybe I read this interpretation somewhere and filed it away during the chaos of last week, regurgitating it now as my own thought. Maybe it really was intended by the creators to be Mr. Bowie’s farewell. I just know seeing the video and coming to these conclusions helped me accept his death as real.
In the video there are two Bowies. One is confined to a bed- blindfolded, enfeebled, barely able to move. He sings as he stirs within the blankets, which are the same drained color as his wrinkled, aged skin. He is trapped within his own body, waiting for release – still active, but restricted. This is Bowie the Man. 69 years old, battling cancer, exhausted after the kind of life that has killed others.
The second Bowie emerges from a closet. He is svelte, styled, and alien. A multicolored pattern covers his skin, recalling the suits of harlequin clowns as he dances and capers, sometimes fretful, sometimes inspired as he scrawls ideas. This is Bowie the Idea, Bowie the Artist, the Bowie of Ziggy, of Changes, of all those times when being someone else made being himself bearable. This is Bowie as we know him, and as he will always be known – ageless, magical, and not of this world. This is the Bowie that really will rise, as Lazarus did.
Maybe it’s derivative to split him in this way – after all, he was still the same person. But he made it cool to be alien, to be an outsider. He placed himself before the world and dared it to face the truth – that by turning away from the strange, we show an ugly, phobic side of ourselves. More importantly, he showed us that by identifying that fear within ourselves, we can learn how to combat it and become better people in the process.
So even though I hate it, I am letting Mr. Bowie go. It still hurts. And it will be a little while before the hurt goes away. But when it does, his body of work will still be there, in all its otherworldly, joyous glory. And it will be there forever.