I am not one to give much of a crap about celebrity deaths, honestly, because they’re not my people. But David Bowie‘s passing on January 10, just 2 days after his birthday and the release of his new album, is the exception. I am heartbroken. It hits close to home, after all. The scenario is one I can relate to; my beloved aunt died just a few days after her birthday. The culprit is also a familiar one, as cancer took both her, and my father, entirely too soon.
It’s more than that, though. A couple days ago, I saw the perfect quote on Twitter: Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.
I don’t remember exactly when – or how (no internet, after all) – I first saw a photo of David as Ziggy Stardust. Suffice to say that I was a kid, and my young mind was thoroughly and immediately blown.
Growing up in rural New York, in the shadow of an oppressive, ultra-conservative cult religion, there were no orange-haired, flamboyantly-garbed, genderless, beautiful creatures like this. He was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I was pulled to him like a magnet, my idol and my first crush. His existence changed everything in my tiny, narrow world.
I was so young that these crazy crushy feelings made no sense to me. I couldn’t understand if I wanted to be him, or be with him. Looking back, it was both.
his influence on my style, over the years, is probably undeniable.
Perfectly imperfect, he changed my ideas of beauty – not just for myself, for women, but for men, too. “Women” in my world were long-haired and feminine, and men were substantial, bearded, “manly men” – why? Who made these rules, anyway? David was my introduction to androgeny, and it would forever shape who I found attractive.
he could kill ’em by smiling
As I got older, I’d revisit that so many times: the skinny spikey-haired skater boys in high school, the boyish redhaired girl in my college Women in Lit class, and so on. My childhood crush on David, simultaneously all man and more feminine than I would ever be, first showed me that gender and attraction are much more fluid and flexible than I’d been raised to believe.
But even more than that, David as Ziggy challenged everything I was being taught, and suddenly I wasn’t so cool with this “normal” that I was being raised to be part of. It made me an asshole of a kid, and an even worse teenager… but it also made me an adult who wasn’t afraid to be me, no matter how much that definition of “me” changed, from day to week to year.
And there was the music, of course. The unapologetically pop Bowie of the ’80s was the ever-present soundtrack of my childhood. By middle school – my crush totally revived with Labyrinth – I’d rediscovered early Bowie. Some of his music, honestly, I couldn’t appreciate until more than a decade after it came out, like Low. But isn’t that part of what made him so compelling? He wasn’t afraid to push the envelope, to be ahead of his time. I am currently in love with Scary Monsters, an album that he put out in 1980 – it still sounds fresh.
I only got to see him once: July 28, 2002, as part of Moby’s Area2 music festival. It was a pretty fantastic setlist, for a short chunk at a festival, and he sounded fantastic, too. He closed with “Ziggy Stardust,” and I cried happy tears. (I also remember being struck by the fact that he was wearing a full suit, on a 90+ degree, humid day in metro D.C., and never broke a sweat. Alien! The man who fell to earth, I tell you!) I always hoped I’d see him again, a legitimate concert this time. It was not to be. Two years later, he collapsed after a show, canceled the rest of the tour, and never toured again.
he’s not even on the ticket. goddamn you, ticketbastard.
As for my crush, David Bowie was always. As the Thin White Duke, as Jareth the Goblin King, as anything he wanted to be, at any age. At 69, he was still otherworldly and alien, with that beautiful smile, even as none of us knew that a very human condition was about to take him down.
But it was Ziggy. Always Ziggy. You say “David Bowie,” and I picture…
do you even realize that everything he’s wearing is fairisle? everything! seriously, blow it up. look at the pic full-size. everything is knitted! i WILL knit those armwarmers someday!
Anyway, I mourn, as much as one can mourn someone they’ve never met. The world has lost an artist in the truest sense. I’ve lost someone who was a part of my life, an influence on who I’d become, for as long as I can remember. It’s a strange kind of hole he’s left in my heart, and it’s only a small comfort to know that I’m not alone.
Other Bowie musings, tributes, and music (I will probably add to this as I find them):
Editing to add: the man wasn’t just a creative genius – he’s an inspiration. I just listened to the new album, Blackstar, and it is awesome, start to finish. When you then put it in context – the man was dying of liver cancer, and he must have felt dreadful – but he was driven by the need to create, to lay out this music in his head, to leave a parting gift for his adoring fans, whatever. Whatever angle of that you take, it’s amazing. He was productive, creative, doing what he loved, literally to the very end.
May we all live that fully. May we all find that love that moves us until our final breaths.