If you were weird, David Bowie made you feel like you weren’t alone.
He didn’t make you feel less weird. If anything he pushed you further into weirdness. He helped you embrace your weirdness. He let you know that there were other weird people out there, and that if they were having a good time, you could be having a good time too.
With a career as deep as it was broad, David Bowie defies an easy eulogy. For one person it’s all about the Berlin era, for another it’s Labyrinth, for some Bowie is defined by Ziggy Stardust while others know him as the Thin White Duke. He’s all of these things, and one of the reasons that David Bowie is one of the most monumental artists to have ever been produced by the human race is that he has been so many things to so many people. As with God, everybody’s relationship with Bowie is deeply personal. Everybody’s relationship with Bowie is one-on-one.
This is my relationship with Bowie:
I don’t remember my first David Bowie song. His voice was always in my life. His music has been playing around me since I first came home from the hospital. But his music has never just been the background; while I will never know what it was like to hear Space Oddity or Five Years or Starman or Life on Mars for the first time I will know what it’s like to rediscover them. As there are many Bowies for each of us so does Bowie reveal himself to you in new ways over time. Songs that I have heard a thousand times become new with each phase of my life; Heroes has had a hundred meanings for me and I know it will have hundreds more yet to come. David Bowie redefined himself from album to album, and his songs redefine themselves from listen to listen.
Or maybe they redefine you.
I was weird. I was a fat little dork who was an indoor kid, painfully aware I wasn’t like everybody else. I felt like an alien, like I wasn’t even the same species as the other kids. I had a lot of problems - I was angry and I was lonely and I was confused. Then my parents split and everything was upended in my life.
When my dad left we ended up with most of his stuff - boxes upon boxes of books and records. I didn’t want to have anything to do with my father, but the gravitational pull of the musty paperbacks and the allure of the records with their “Nice Price” stickers and thin, ripping plastic wrap was too much for me. I discovered much of who I would become in those boxes, and somewhere in there was Diamond Dogs.
I picked records out of the boxes by their covers. I was maybe just eight or nine, if even that, and I was susceptible to flashy or weird art (or sexy ladies, the only reason I know who Yma Sumac is), and Diamond Dogs had that. The front cover has Bowie, androgynous and beautiful and sexy, propped on his elbows, his red hair bouffed up and freak show ladies on a poster behind him. That was intriguing, but it was on the other side of the album’s spine that I saw the image that made me play that record - the back half of Bowie was a dog’s haunches.
Looking at that cover today gives me a Proustian rush; every piece of it was so confusing to me as a kid, and I can feel the excitement of that confusion in my belly even today. I knew who Bowie was, and I knew he was a he, but that front cover image was tantalizingly sexual to me. I found that confusing, because I was pretty sure I liked girls. But if that wasn’t confusing enough, the way the whole body morphed into that of a dog - the sheer fantastical surreality of it - simply wowed me. I felt sexually confused by what I saw and, more than that, I felt ontologically challenged. It was fucking awesome.
I didn’t know that Diamond Dogs was a concept album, and I didn’t know that it had begun life as a possible musical, but the songs came alive in my head. If I was nine or so that means it was around 1982 or 1983, which means Orwell’s 1984 was in the atmosphere, and Bowie’s 1984, on side two, exploded my brain. It was like listening to a movie, and it was connected to a book I knew. I recognized that I was listening to science fiction.
Rock and roll science fiction! I had been hearing Bowie, but I hadn’t been understanding. I had heard Space Oddity, but I didn’t understand Space Oddity. It was redefined for me. All the hits, all the radio staples, were redefined - the first of many times to come. Diamond Dogs sent me going through the rest of the records, looking for more Bowie. And I found The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and that was it. Nothing was ever again the same.
Forget the fact that Ziggy Stardust is simply one of the top five musical works ever recorded - if you even remotely think I am exaggerating do yourself a favor and play the album from beginning to end - here was a work of explicit science fiction in the format of rock and roll. More than that, it was a story about aliens, and it was a story told by a guy who kind of was an alien, what with those two different colored eyes. I dug more into Bowie and found The Man Who Fell To Earth, and here he truly was an alien.
Just like me.
It’s really worth noting that David Bowie wasn’t the only scifi rock in that collection, but Bowie was the only scifi rock that was true. Bowie wasn’t being trippy or weird because that was what was happening at the time, he was so clearly being himself, so clearly expressing his own oddity, that every out there lyric, every holographic TV and every man who sold the world, rang with the honest curiosity and weirdness of a nerd. His imagery wasn’t cheap Star Wars pulp but rather heady quantum rock. He was finding god on the other side of the event horizon.
I wasn’t just a nerd. I felt weird in other ways, too. I was different from the rest of the kids beyond my fascination with Star Trek and Tolkien. When I saw that Diamond Dogs album cover and had a strangely erotic reaction I knew I liked girls - I was pining over many of them at school all the time - but I didn’t feel masculine. I didn’t feel like the other boys. The things they liked, the ways they played, their aggressiveness and their physicality weren’t familiar to me. I was called faggot a lot, and I didn’t think I was one… but at the same time I simply didn’t identify with all the traits I was told boys had.
David Bowie didn’t have them either. And yet at around this exact same time he was totally getting it on with this hot Asian girl on the beach in the China Girl video. He wasn’t manly in any traditional way, and some of the kids at school said he was a queer… but here he was, getting it on. There he was, ushering some of those girls I was pining for into puberty. So many of the masculine idols of the 80s left me cold, or actually repelled me, and David Bowie showed me you could be a man in ways that didn’t fit the boring mold, and he showed me that when the other kids called me faggot it was a slur coming from their own fears. He allowed me to embrace my own ideas of what it meant to grow into manhood.
In my 20s I followed this path a little further, inspired by Bowie’s glam rock era and trysts with Mick Jagger, and I discovered that I don’t look very good in lipstick and that I’m definitely, for sure, not into guys - no matter how many times I listened to Suede records. I’m glad that I pushed myself, though, and I’m glad that Bowie gave me the confidence to go there. I can only imagine the doors he opened for other young men.
As soon as I learned David Bowie had died his songs redefined themselves again, or maybe his loss redefined me. Space Oddity, already melancholy, is almost unbearable to listen to right now. I have not yet listened to Blackstar, his final album, and knowing that he wrote and recorded it with the knowledge that it would be his final statement makes me afraid to play it. At the same time I know that David Bowie has always been there for me, that he has always helped me face the changes. Here's the final journey into the unknown, and Bowie has beamed back his last communique, like the Starman speaking to Ziggy Stardust through the radio. And he's going to tell me I'm not alone.
I was weird. I was a freak. I was a fag. But I was never alone. That, in the end, is what art’s true function is - to remind us that we’re not alone. To help us understand that someone else has felt like this. That someone else has hurt like this. That someone else is just as confused, that someone else is just as lost. That someone else knows what it is to be an alien.
Oh no love! you're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you're not alone
No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain
You're not alone