RIP David Bowie

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.

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

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.

RIP David Bowie

The Ritzy, Brixton's cinema

The Ritzy, Brixton’s cinema

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.

Iman's makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural--obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

Iman’s makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural–obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

The next day

The next day

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.

Goblin King, 2009

Goblin King, 2009

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.

Ziggy Stardust (with original tour makeup!), 2008

Ziggy Stardust (with makeup as it was done on the original tour!), 2008

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.

At the David Bowie Is... exhibit

At the David Bowie Is… exhibit

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

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.

Brixton sidewalk

Brixton sidewalk

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

Aesthetically Speaking: Ellie Maybe

Today I’d like to introduce you to a bona fide rock goddess, Ellie Maybe. Ellie writes songs for and performs in about 5,000 different bands, and is awesome in all of them. She has a show coming up this week, Thursday, October 13, so be sure to check her out at LiveWire. Thanks for sharing, Ellie!

What is your name and city of residence?
Ellie Maybe – Chicago, IL

What medium do you work in? 

Ellie Maybe photo by Audrey Leon

rock goddess

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
I haven’t had a real job in three or four years.  I’m gradually (read: barely) approaching the point where I’m actually making the majority of my income off of live music, which, while I am hanging by a thread and paying rent late every month, is pretty exciting.  That said, I’m still looking for a part-time bartending gig so if you know of anything…… heh.

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
Music is the basis and motivation for everything I do.  I am a musician.  Even odd jobs I work are based around music (music marketing, graphic design for artists, roadie gigs, et cetera).  Every day I’m booking shows or rehearsing or promoting gigs or trying to start new bands and projects.  It’s not something I could really go a day without — listening to music in the car while running errands makes me want to go home and pick up an instrument.  My phone’s memo app is filled with song ideas, random lyrics, names of tribute bands I haven’t created yet.  It’s a constant thing for me… there’s not a second of the day where I’m not (at least in some capacity) thinking about, creating or promoting music.

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
Music is intangible and the “end result” is inarguably emotional — what the listener experiences and, in cases of live performance, what the artist experiences while playing. Personally, I often envision reactions from an audience (or occasionally the person I’m writing for/about) while writing a tune… how will this make them feel?  How will this lyric come across?  Will my exboyfriend know I wrote this song about his best friend? Hahaha…

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
This is a topic on which I’m very vocal.  I don’t believe that “selling out” is even a concept. Artists create to share their work with the world, and those with the proper talent and drive should be compensated to do so.  Sure, there are certain companies I’d prefer not to sell my music to, but if McDonald’s wants to use one of my tunes in a commercial and it means I don’t have to *work* at a McDonald’s to make a living, I’m gonna do it.  I am a musician by preference, but above all else, by trade.  I consider this a job.  I love it and I would play music if I couldn’t make a dime at it (and have), but I want to make a living doing this, and turning down opportunities simply because of an outdated stigma of “selling out” just seems silly to me.

I was once asked by a professor at an audition whether I would rather have a half-assed album that I was ashamed of go platinum and make millions, or an independent release I was incredibly proud of that only sold ten copies.  I told him that I’d take the former any day, and use the proceeds to fund the marketing of the latter.

“Selling out” is what you make of it.  Money makes our society move, and it’s important in this industry to have backing… It’s futile to attempt to preserve your artistic integrity by allowing less people to hear the music you create.

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any? 
Music in and of itself is a collaborative medium.  The writing end can be a little more personal… For the longest time, I refused to collaborate.  Songs just kind of fell out of me. I’d get an idea, sit down to write, and it was done.  I don’t like to edit.  However, about six years ago I met a guy who was an amazing guitarist and fairly accomplished songwriter.  We ended up working together on a lot of things.  We were involved in a romantic relationship as well, so there was a comfort level there… I still refused to write with others until 2008, when I participated in Steel Bridge SongFest’s weeklong Construction Zone songwriting workshop.  I ended up working with dozens of people I’d never met before (including freaking Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s!!) and came home ten times the musician I was simply for the experience of interacting with these folks.  I’ve since been able to cowrite with bands, producers, et cetera and I’ve become a much stronger writer for it.

The creation of music is a very personal experience, but I’ve learned that the challenge of pouring your heart out into a song with another writer can actually be quite therapeutic — and often times the piece comes out stronger than it could have with only one perspective.

Ellie Maybe photo by Allison King

collaboration in action

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
While I have very defined favourites who I would usually list as influences (Tom Waits, Foreigner, KISS… yes, seriously), there are very few instances in which I really push my style to emulate them.  Actually, as far as musical influences go, I take a *lot* from rap music.  Syncopation and literary devices fascinate me, and there is a heavy emphasis on that in hip hop.  There’s nothing quite as cool as getting that perfect lyric — the one that not only expresses the sentiment clearly, but makes you think, “How has no one already said this?”  Rappers have a flare for this — it’s what they do.

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
Travel is one of the reasons I am a musician.  My goal in life is to pack my dog and my guitar into an RV and tour the country.  I’m currently writing a new solo record so that I can make this dream a reality — my freaking Twitter tagline is “I want to go everywhere and meet everyone.”  And it’s true.  I haven’t been many places (outside of the Midwest I could probably list them on one hand) and I’m thrilled by the concept of discovering new dive bars in small towns across the country, seeing baseball games in different parks, and making new friends who will give me a reason to come back and visit.  One of these days I’m hitting the road and I’m not getting out of the damn truck for at least a year.

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
The El.  Seriously.  I still think west is up on a compass because of the damn Elevated maps.  The CTA ruined me.  Maybe I should take a navigator with me in that RV…. ha!

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
Thursday, October 13 @ 10:00PM
LiveWire (3394 N Milwaukee Ave in Chicago)
The Sonnets (my band) with Black Market Parts & Tiny Riots (from Madison) (me)
(my band) (my all-lady KISS tribute)

Ellie Maybe photo by John Schulze

Slutter, all-lady KISS tribute band. YES.