Ten years to the day before I was born, the album Aladdin Sane was released; David Bowie’s lightning bolt was burned into my soul from the very beginning. When I heard on Monday that Bowie had died, I couldn’t really comprehend what that meant. I’d never even considered the possibility that he might be anything other than immortal.
I went to an impromptu dance party/singalong/wake on Monday night. Bowie was born in Brixton, the London neighborhood I live in, and a few years ago someone painted a mural of Bowie’s face on an alley wall near the Tube. After the news of his death, people turned it into a shrine, leaving flowers, notes, mementos. By the time I arrived at 10pm, the offerings were piled high, and the crowd was large and boisterous. I came across one woman in tears, who asked if she could hug a kindred spirit. I hugged her and told it her it was all right, the Starman had just ascended, which made her smile.
Because of course Bowie was an alien, he told us so himself. He was a starman, an oddity from outer space. He dressed in outlandish costumes and sang of strange worlds. He relished his position as outsider and invited everyone to join him in these new worlds of glam rock, Berlin electro-pop, and all the others.
Granted, after Ziggy Stardust he was wildly popular, hardly an outsider in terms of who was listening to him and how much money he was making. Bowie knew that, and never for a moment was he unaware of his PR or his image. You have to be calculating to be a real star. But as much as he wanted to make money and become known through his image (and what artist wants to remain unknown?), Bowie was also just interested in image creation in its own right. He was hugely into fashion, and how his look and his sound went together. He studied mime, read up on kabuki, hired cutting-edge fashion designers, watched avant garde theater, envisaged elaborate stage shows for his tours. He enjoyed so many aesthetics, and played endlessly with new looks, taking a bit from here, a bit from there, seeing what fit him in certain moods, how he felt like presenting himself at any given time.
For me, when I was growing up as a fat girl in the American Midwest, I tried to say that appearances didn’t matter, that the only thing worth seeing about a person is what’s on the inside. I wanted to forget all about how I looked, what I wore, how I presented myself, because I felt ungainly and undesirable. The more I saw of Bowie’s photos and videos, the more I came to understand that you shouldn’t care what others think of your appearance, but that your appearance should matter to you, for your own enjoyment.
Dress how you feel, wear whatever makes you feel alive. If you feel like a starman, put on that glitter jumpsuit. If you feel like a lounge lizard, bust out the fedora. The idea that you could have fun with what you wore and how you presented to the world excited me, even if it took me a long time after my teenage years to try it out myself.
I often bore people at parties by listing the different Bowie personas I’ve taken on for Halloween: Ziggy Stardust, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth (complete with an entourage of Sarah and Hoggle), elder statesman of rock with my boyfriend in drag as Iman. Taking on those personas, which are after all personas that Bowie himself put on, is layering my admiration of him with my desire to mess with gender. It’s also another way for me to perform, and be loud, which I enjoy. When I’m dressed as Bowie, I have a lot of wonderful conversations with people who are also fans. Any time I’m in a Bowie getup, everyone is very friendly; people respond to that joyful expression.
Even better is that I look pretty much nothing like him (I’m always joking that some year I’ll dress all in white and go as the Thin White Duke, just to watch people squirm when they ask who I am). I’m not sure what Bowie would think about my very homemade, very large costumes when he was always so immaculately turned out. I’d like to think he’d say something like, ‘Go on with yer fat self, babe.’
In 2013, the Bowie-authorized David Bowie Is… exhibit opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. My parents immediately bought me a ticket as a birthday present. It was a fascinating exhibit, an integration of sound and vision, as you wore headphones that picked up on Bluetooth signals around the room, so when you were in this area reading about the surprise hit that was “Space Oddity,” you were hearing that, and when you walked over here to read about his influences, John Coltrane’s sax wailed in your ears.
It’s no secret that Bowie’s influences are varied and wide, including German philosophers, Japanese designers, American musicians, British authors, French artists, and many more. He was a voracious learner, and he enjoyed sharing what he’d learned with others. This wide-ranging interest applied to fellow artists as well. He was always seeking out new sounds, and he generously boosted the profile of musicians he enjoyed. He did this throughout his career, at least as recently as singing with Arcade Fire when they were just breaking big.
That’s another aspect to him that some see, that he would just pick at the parts of other artists’ work that he enjoyed and suit it to his own needs. But unlike some artists who cannibalize what they claim to love, I can’t think of any instance of Bowie diminishing what he borrowed from. He approached art and expression with real enthusiasm but also an almost detached air, like an engineer who wants to put things together in various combinations until he finds the one that best does what he wants to do. Bowie took elements of soul, jazz, rock, and pop, and played with those combinations over the course of his 50-year career.
I love that he was so interested in other artists. I know too many musicians and writers who don’t do much listening or reading to others, which means they’re drawing from a very small pool of their own experiences and ideas when they create. Bowie drew from an entire ocean of artists, which is surely one of the reasons we love him so much: his sound is fuller, more complex and interesting, than artists who don’t paddle out of their comfort zone.
Bowie’s songs are all about isolation, loneliness, fear, trying to understand what we’re doing here and trying to connect with others (as he himself has said). Because after all, Bowie wasn’t an alien, he was very human, singing in his sweet, thin tenor about our human hopes and woes. He created art as a way to be in this world, and as a response to it. He wrote, sang, played instruments, danced, acted, choreographed, drew, painted, directed–there was always something to create, a new way to re-order the information in the world, a different key to express himself in.
I have always loved Bowie for the major creative force he was. He approached the world with curiosity, a healthy amount of cynicism, and most beautifully, with joy and love. His songs are all about reaching out to others, and the nearly unbridgeable gap between yourself and any other person in the world, but I never quite got the sense that he considered the task impossible. Even in an absurd and often terrible world, there’s music to be made. So I think that’s what we must do. We must name our fears, we must put them into songs and poems and films, we must share them with one another. If we’re lucky, we’ll find some of that same wonder and tenderness that David Bowie showed us.
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…
Gimme your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful