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

On the Road in New Zealand

I’ve already mentioned how fortunate I was to have Liz as a road trip buddy in New Zealand, but I’ll say it again: I had so much fun traveling with her. We laughed a lot—both at funny things we said and ridiculous situations we found ourselves in, like leaving a camera on the hood of the car and driving for ten feet before realizing it. We made a good driving/navigating team—she drove, I squinted at a map and made my best guess, which only resulted in turning around about half the time. We even sang Christmas carols together on the drive through the Taupo Volcanic Zone, two sopranos belting out the first verse of just about every hymn we could think of as we hurtled down the first straight road we’d seen in the whole country.

The green hills of the central North Island

The gray skies and green hills of central North Island

Liz was a little more used to the roads in New Zealand than I, considering she’s from northern Ontario, and many Canadian roads are similarly unsealed (read: teeth-rattling gravel). What neither of us was really prepared for was how small the roads were (major highways were two-lanes just about everywhere except around Auckland and Wellington), how much they twisted and turned (we never quite got used to turning a blind corner and hoping we didn’t meet anyone crossing the center line coming the other way), or how un-signed they’d be.

Putting a lot of signs all at once doesn't make up for the lack of signage in a thirty-kilometer radius, NZ.

Putting a lot of signs all at once doesn’t make up for the lack of signage in a thirty-kilometer radius, NZ.

I should say, we’d see signs sometimes, but the road might have changed names somewhere along the way, and if our map wasn’t detailed enough, it wouldn’t show the name change, so we couldn’t be sure we were on the right road. Also, road signs would point out what town we were eventually heading toward, but in the same manner as if that were the next town over, so we’d see a town name with an arrow and think “ah we’re here” but then no town would materialize and twenty minutes later we’d finally be there.

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Getting around the dairy country where Liz’s friends lived was particularly bewildering. The landscape was all similar—large hills with turf that look like it had been molded into many tiny ridges, the occasional collection of black rocks, and lots and lots of cows. Liz knew the area a little since she’d worked there for a few weeks, but she’d only ever driven one route. As soon as we deviated from that route, we were lost. On the day we drove to Waitomo, we borrowed the GPS from Liz’s friends, but even the GPS got turned around in the labyrinth that was central Waikato roads. The best was when the GPS had us turn right when we should have turned left, and it took us a good 40 minutes to sort out the mistake.

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All this backtracking and second-guessing was mostly just fun, until it rained. And it rains a lot in New Zealand. Our worst rainy drive was probably the twenty kilometers between Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. It was 7 in the morning, Liz had been rained out of her tent the night before, and we were climbing a mountain road in the pouring rain to make it to our tour on time. Many kudos to Liz for getting us there alive; all I could do was say over and over, “It’ll be fine, we’ll get there in time.” (Since I alternated this with “I don’t know if I can do this hike” and Liz then had to reassure me, I think I wasn’t actually that helpful.)

An ominous start to an awesome day

An ominous start to an awesome day

At home, driving in sketchy conditions with poor signage can be helped with a boost from the radio, but our little Nissan Sunny rental only had a range of 78-86FM, and for the most part, we could only get one station, if any. Those mountains really did the job on scrambling any signal we might have got. Our radio was hung up on 84.0—any time we hit scan, the numbers would zoom past, 83.183.283.383.483.583.683.783.883.984.0. Boom. There it would stay, desperately trying to transmit something no doubt awesome—rock n roll, lotta soul, cosmic jive?—but not actually giving us so much as a faint crackle of static. Good thing we had lots to talk about, and the occasional song to belt from memory. When the radio did come to life, it was oh so good. The occasional Maori tune, some current New Zealand pop songs, and then the most amazing array of ‘90s Top 40 hits. Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, Alanis, Enrique… wonderful for a nostalgic singalong or two, horrible if it’s all you could get for years!

On the way to Greymouth

On the way to Greymouth

This doesn’t even get to one-way bridges and cow rush hour, but that’s a post for another day. Basically, everything about road tripping in New Zealand was familiar enough to be comfortable and strange enough to be fun and funny—an ideal combination, especially when you’re sharing it with someone who feels the same way.

Liz and me in Taupo

Liz and me in Taupo