'Cause you've torn your dress... and your face is a mess'
On Jan. 10, I woke up to six text messages, all on the same topic. The first one read, I heard about David Bowie. Are you okay?
I was not, in fact, okay.
To explain why this hit me so hard, I need to go back to about 1973 when a skinny kid with big ears in Cleveland, Ohio, bought Bowie’s album “Pin-Ups.” It was one of the first albums he bought with his own money.
If you guessed that this was my dad, you’re right.
When I was in high school, I was super weird. I’m not talking about the normal high school levels of weirdness where puberty gets to you and makes everything weird, I’m talking weird. Not only was I an odd little nerd girl, I was also a tomboy to the extreme. It was less about liking sports and not liking dresses and more about wanting to actually be a boy. Half my high school thought I was male and I was pretty pleased about that.
Years later I learned that “gender fluidity” is a thing and that made my whole life make a lot more sense, but that’s another story.
It was also in high school that my father introduced me to Bowie. He was beginning to get annoyed with me for not being super into music, but I was a preteen in the age of boy bands and pop princesses, so I think I get a pass. Dad took it as his holy mission to get me into all the stuff he was into at my age.
Bowie was the thing that really stuck.
For a weird, gender-confused kid, Bowie is like some kind of deity. No longer are conventionally attractive people there to tell you to go out and party, or whatever it is that pop music is all about. Some weird pasty white lizard man with bicolor eyes and tight pants is writing songs about aliens. By all logic, Bowie should never have been popular to begin with.
When I was 15, I used to lie on the floor of my bedroom and listen to “Rebel Rebel” over and over again. It wasn’t a love song. It wasn’t about being cool or pretty. It was about being a tough talking, gender non-conformist with a bad attitude and still being beautiful. It wasn’t about joining a revolution. It was about being a revolution.
It was about me.
Of course, it was about me in that way that all songs are about the 15 year-old listener, but I don’t care. In the moment, it was about me and I’d never really had a song that did that for me.
David Bowie was wildly popular and everyone, even of my generation, knows who he is. But at his core, Bowie never really felt like he was for the cool kids. He wasn’t popular music for popular people. He was a weirdo, a storkish, snaggletoothed wacko in a sparkly jumpsuit and he made no apologies for it. That was the thing about Bowie. He wasn’t weird for a camera. He was barely trying to make a point. He just did what he wanted and if people didn’t like that, too bad. And somehow, with that kind of devil-may-care attitude, everyone loved him.
I’m not saying that he wasn’t concerned with being famous. He was. But he always seemed to be an artist first and a commercial entity second. Maybe I’m reading into things, but I’ve read my Bowie books and that’s how everyone seems to see him.
My love of David Bowie was one of the few musical things I wasn’t quiet about. Everything else was either totally unknown or a little embarrassing. I had a boyfriend in college who hated all of my music and that made me keep my mouth shut about my tastes. But never about Bowie. He was always something I wore with pride. My weirdness quotient. My freak flag.
Everyone has those things that people associate with them, be it a favorite book or a much loved film. Mine are the 90s science fiction television program “The X-Files” and David Bowie. Three times a week people send me articles or photos or call me because they heard something about him. I get tagged in Facebook and Tumblr posts about Bowie. I get emailed links to music videos. For Christmas a few years back, a great friend of mine bought me a framed copy of the album “Diamond Dogs,” my breakaway favorite Bowie album. Since getting it, I’ve moved three times and it’s one of the few things I brought with me everywhere.
At 19, my dad referred to me as “androgynous, like Bowie” and I was so pleased, I almost cried.
Which takes us back to the six texts on the morning of the 10th.
David Bowie dropped a fascinating new album with jazz sensibilities on the 8th of January, his 69th birthday. Two day later, he died of cancer. He hadn’t bothered to mention the cancer thing to anyone, including his close friends. My mother, who also had the Bowie bug, said that he was a true artist to the end.
We need more weird heroes in this world. I have plenty of them, from Kathleen Hanna’s no-holds-barred feminist punk rage to Amanda Palmer’s disregard for social conventions regarding nudity and eyebrows, but none of them have the power of Bowie. The weirdos are still there, loud, angry weirdos tired of being spoken over. We know what Bowie did for us. But without him, I worry we’ll be forgotten again. He’ll be one weird guy. “Alternative” music is heading more and more for “pop but slower with more beards and banjos.”
I wish Bowie happiness as he returns to his home planet (this is my coping mechanism) and I wish all the rest of us still here the confidence to wear sequined leggings if that’s what we want.