The tributes are pouring in. David Bowie was a gifted artist, musician and a legendary rock star. A pioneer of original thought and expression. A true”one of kind”. It’s been said a million times over, but it needs to be acknowledged a million more. As a teenager in the 80s, I fell in love with him during his “Let’s Dance”, Serious Moonlight tour. Of course, I’d grown up hearing his earlier music from the backseat of my parents’ car. I knew who he was. But in 1983 he became mine. He made music accessible to me. With his slicked back hair, gorgeous eyes, and sexy suits, he was suddenly someone I found interesting. Sure, those are surface affectations, but I was mesmerized. I had to know everything about him. I recorded every performance I could find on MTV on our VHS machine. The Bing Cosby “Little Drummer Boy”? Got it. “Ashes to Ashes” video? Got that too.
My collection matured over the years. My vinyl records and cassette tapes gave way to CDs. I amassed my personal Bowie favorites over the years (“Young Americans”, “Heroes”, “Queen Bitch”… to name a few) and knew he’d always have a special place in my heart. A “Don’t turn that station. It’s Bowie, for God’s sake!” kind of artist who meant something to me because he marked a passage of time in my own life.
Years went by and I became a parent driving a young teenage boy to his performing arts high school. That boy was different from the other kids. He preferred to watch black and white German films rather than summer blockbusters. He hated sports and tended to drift to his room when he became overwhelmed by excess noise and chatter. But he loved music. Especially David Bowie. I have this incredibly special memory of our family driving from our hotel in San Francisco to drop him off at his new dorm at SFSU. He’d made a mixed CD (he’s so my kid) and yes, there was a ton of Bowie on it. He sang “Queen Bitch” at the top of his lungs in his funny, off-pitch voice (again… my kid 🙂 ) and made us laugh until we literally cried. I learned later that the song was written as a tribute to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground and I loved him a little more.
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that (David Bowie, “Queen Bitch”)
I though it was great that our kids had the same affinity for Bowie that my husband and I had, but I had to wonder why. Until last Friday, he hadn’t produced a new album in years. He wasn’t their “voice of a generation”, he was their parents’ music, which meant he should have been cool-ish, but not necessarily awesome. Something set him apart though and made him into a hero of sorts, especially our gay son. Sure, it was the music. But I’m convinced his fearless, androgynous persona played a big part too.
Bowie was an original. From his onstage alter-ego Ziggy Stardust to his his gender-bending lyrics like “You’ve got your mother in a whir, She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” (“Rebel, Rebel”, 1974), he was a pioneer. A man of his time and well before his time. He wasn’t afraid to push the status quo and blur the lines of sexuality. He was a fluid non-conformist and a true artist.
With my son’s permission, I am reposting his blog entry below entitled “Blackstar”. I read the last line of the post and as a mother, it made oh so grateful for brave artists like Mr. Bowie. Thank you. May you rest in peace.
“Blackstar” by David Bowie
Posted on January 8, 2016
There’s a line I love from the movie “For Your Consideration.” ”In every actor there lives a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale. You never know which one is going to show up.”
David Bowie is an actor and today he shows up as a murderer, a droog, and a man who’s fucked his sister. He’s 69 (Happy Birthday!) and has proven with “Blackstar” that he’s as nimble and protean as he’s ever been, setting off like Denis Lavant’s character in “Holy Motors” to assume new poses in all manner of dark situations – conquering weariness “for the beauty of the act.”
No matter how much Us Weekly tries to force the notion, stars are not just like us. As we age our skin warps and withers – and if you’re white, develops the pallor and consistency of a livery tortilla. Actor’s skin is alternately tattooed by later failures or drawn too tight around the mythologies they have created, or both. In shedding his skin with “Blackstar,” Bowie rips at the seams of our imagination and lets blood flow in to stave off mummification.
I do not have one friend for whom David Bowie is not central to their sensibility, the way that they observe and internalize art. But the “David Bowie” that has given them that agency is onstage with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias in a WAC uniform, or shot in key light as Marlene Dietrich, or fiendish in a waistcoat trolling for cocaine and a cigarette. To stray too far into his latter work has been to experience letdown and cognitive dissonance. More than one friend has told me that they’ve reconciled their admiration and disappointment by reevaluating his work as a whole. “I like him, but he’s definitely not my favorite” has been a common and disheartening refrain.
I recently read a hilarious article that listed a number of celebrity women with short hair (Annie Lennox, Grace Jones) as genderqueer. As a term it has no use to me and often feels misused by people with political convictions rather than innate fluidity of gender. Where gay culture and trans culture are already super ill-preserved, what is actually queer is ephemeral to the point of nonexistence. The work of Genesis P-Orridge and Justin Vivian Bond come to mind, as does the French artist, Claude Cahun… and then there’s David Bowie.
The freedom Bowie offers defies every kind of binary, because it removes the importance of any kind of outward gaze to make transcendence possible. “I’m an alligator! I’m a mama-papa comin’ for you! he snarled on “Moonage Daydream” in the fits of becoming Ziggy Stardust. Later in “Lady Stardust,” Ziggy watches on as a feminine boy turns an audience from antipathy into applause. “Blackstar” is full of statements and full of refutations as Bowie, Lazarus-like, returns from the dead to wreak havoc, ponder the state of the world, and set the record straight about who he is now, risen from the ash.
I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)
The closest modern artist to David Bowie is St. Vincent, who declared on the first song of her debut album “I’m not any, any, any, any, any, any, any-thing at all,” wiping the slate clean before she herself became… Ziggy Stardust. But to be is so much more important than to not, and once again David Bowie proves that he is the greatest actor alive by demonstrating that there are so many more ways to be than as a rock star, an ogre, an astronaut, or a myriad collection of very strange animals. And that’s a demonstration that has liberated me and countless others.