Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie, 1947-2016

I woke up this morning to a text from the person in the kitchen: "Fuck! David Bowie died. Unbelievable. I just cannot fucking believe it. That's the last thing I expected."

I read it and said, out loud, "No!" then burst into tears.

It was the last thing he expected, and the last thing I expected, because we had just been talking on the 8th (Bowie's birthday, just a couple of days ago!) about how Bowie's new record, Blackstar, was a masterpiece. Bowie has had musical ups and downs over the past decades, but Blackstar really stands out as one of his very best records, ever. Indeed, back in November, I was in Denver at a conference, and the person in the kitchen sent me the video for the title track, saying, "This is extraordinary. It's finally his Scott Walker moment." I played "Blackstar" the single over and over and over, gobsmacked. This is the Bowie we've been waiting for, I thought to myself. He's done it. 

Something happened on the day he died...

I got out of bed, teary-eyed, and met the person in the kitchen and we talked about what Bowie -- make that David -- meant to us. "What about his kids? What about Iman?" I said, as if I know them personally. "I was born in 1970. He's been here my whole life. It's the end of an era! I've never lived without him!" I knew immediately that I needed to write something, and write it today, to try (desperately) to express this idea of: what did he mean to me?

Why was I crying over a celebrity? This will, of course, only make sense if you are a person who has ever had the all-consuming feeling that some kind of art is the most important thing in the world to you. For me, growing up, it was certain kinds of music. Particularly in that delicate era of my life from around the age of ten until my early twenties, music guided me. It guided me through my father's death (he died the same day as Bowie, strangely, although decades earlier), it guided me through the crazy world of school, of love and longing and loss, of moving away from home, of making mistakes, of accomplishments, of the transition of youth to adulthood. Music meant more to me than anything else, and I voraciously consumed it in many forms, as well as its alluring trappings -- adoration of the musicians, wearing or wanting to wear the fashions associated with certain types of it, adopting the language of it, dreaming of and then experiencing imageries and imaginaries and even the consequences of it. As a child, as a teen, and as a younger adult, I was a reader, I was a talker, I was a thinker, but most of all, I was a music listener, and an obsessive one at that. Maybe another day I'll write about how that obsession really manifested itself, but this piece isn't about me, even as it is, I suppose, totally about me.

I am a DJ, I am what I play.


And among all of the musicians I adored, there were four icons that stood in a pantheon of influence unlike all the others: Freddie Mercury, about whom I'm lately writing in a scholarly way, but I have yet to make public my private writings about his influence on me, because they are still too raw and personal; Nina Hagen, who, when I finally met her -- in the most unlikely and most likely of all Southern California possibilities back in '96-- was the only person who made me completely star struck in my whole life; Kate Bush, about whose influence I've written here; and then Bowie, whose death I can not yet absorb. Thinking about it today, those four have some key elements in common: they are all simultaneously unique and totally blank, projecting personas rather than selves to their audiences, which then allows their fans to make them into whatever they choose to make them; they are all mythologically huge in their sheer audacity, yet rather small when being themselves; and they are all chameleons, refusing to be defined or contained.

That's what attracted me to Bowie, clearly. Much ink has been spilled regarding Bowie's propensity to change his image, his characters, his style. But what that really meant to me was that it symbolized the potential of becoming anything, of being anywhere, of rejecting what the world sees and emerging as you want to be. Bowie notoriously ripped off so many people, including those whom he idolized, adored, and envied, people with whom he worked, people he mentored. People like Anthony Newley and Marc Bolan, Scott Walker and Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mick Ronson. But the thing is, he did all of the things he took from them and made them better, and was better at the business and the looks and the images, and so even the rip off became homage. But that isn't what made me love David Bowie.

What made me love Bowie was the fact that his music spoke directly to me, opened up worlds far beyond my lived experience to me, and it always felt like he was singing straight to me. This is best summed up by two distinct moments in my life. One happened in 1990, when I finally got to see Bowie live, for the first and only time. It was at Cal Expo in Sacramento on the Sound + Vision tour, and when he came to the stage, I experienced something I'd never seen before and have never seen since. Bowie walked on stage and the entire audience stepped back. A sea of 10,000 people stepped back, because he was just that big.

The second moment happened in 1999. I was sitting in the Cinematheque in Jerusalem, watching (for the first time, of countless many) Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine. There's a scene in that exquisite film, when Christian Bales' character, Arthur Stuart, is watching Brian Slade, the pseudo-Bowie character come to life by Johnathan Rhys-Myers, on TV for the first time. Arthur's sitting in his parents' grimly British sitting room, awkward and teenage in all the worst ways, and he is so transfixed by the glam persona on the screen that he jumps up and screams, "THAT'S ME!!! THAT'S ME!!!"

I sat in the theatre and my heart stopped. THAT WAS ME, I thought, that's me! In that one moment, there had never, ever been a piece of cinema that so directly spoke to me, because my whole world in the biggest part of my teenage life had been just that -- sitting and watching, sitting and listening, sitting and reading, sitting and dreaming, THAT'S ME. And just as Arthur's parents looked at him like he was a freak, so I know a lot of the world of Modesto, CA in the 80s looked at me like that, too. But I didn't care. It didn't matter to me, because I had those people, those icons, those musicians who brought me what Bowie so perfectly titled "Sound + Vision," and that was an escape for me, as well as a promise.


It was a promise that I did not have to be trapped in a world I wanted so desperately to escape. And when I saw David, I knew that I could do that. We can be heroes, just for one day.

During the walk home that night from the theatre, my flatmate and I talked about the film. I was fighting back tears talking about it, because Velvet Goldmine seemed to be a total encapsulation of everything that mattered to me, including both the potential of music and the loss that came in its aftermath, when the record stopped. And when my friend relayed that she had no ability to relate to what I was talking about, I determined that it was because she grew up in Manhattan, and in such a satiated and even waterlogged cultural site, there was no need for yearning, no struggle, and no desire.

But it wasn't just that I grew up in a place where I had to fight for culture and glamour that I fell in love with Bowie while still a child. It was simply because he conveyed the gamut of deep emotion with a level of creativity and flair that was both universal and deeply specific. Bowie spoke to those of us who did not fit in and did not want to fit in. If you were different, if you wanted more than the prescription society tried to dose you with, and if you had the ability to open your heart and open your mind, he could fill you up with both emotion and its absence. He was both everything and nothing, a blank slate and a full plate.

There's this moment in the "Let's Dance" video that sums up so much of why I love Bowie.

Like the mystical jewel that transforms Jack Fairy et al in Velvet Goldmine, Bowie's "Let's Dance" delivers a pair of red shoes from the ether to an Aboriginal couple on the outskirts of Sydney, a magical charm and a conduit for another world. After sampling what they have to offer--essentially, white privilege--the protagonists take the red shoes and smash them, then leave them behind in the dirt. There's a whole cultural critique specific to Australia and racism and postcoloniality there, of course, but there's also this rejection of the tropes of society and what it means to be "successful" and "civilized" and "respectable." And I just remember seeing that video for the very first time -- probably on Night Flight -- at the age of twelve or something, and gasping in a moment of epiphany. "The serious moonlight" from that moment has never left me. I didn't have to be like anyone else, ever. There's a price to pay for that, but when you care about the things I care about, and your priorities are not in line with the world around you, validation from such an icon is priceless.

I've never done good things, I've never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue. 

I have much more to say about Bowie, and I know I can say it better. But I wanted to write this today, stream of consciousness perhaps, so the shock of his death, mixed with my inexpressible gratitude, would register. All I can say today is, This is how a icon, an artist, a legend dies.

Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me

Thank you, David. I love you. Rest in Power. 


  1. A beautiful effigy of words for a man who influenced and inspired so many. Thank you for sharing Nancy.