I’m always reluctant to chime in on a mass-culture meme: like the death of David Bowie. More than anything this has to do with my fear of being perceived as using a sad event to draw attention to myself. Then there’s my chronic uniqueness (aka bratty need to be different.) But it hit me much harder than I expected. Like so many of us, I awoke, and (in a grotesque sign of the times) checked my iPhone, and the first words I read were of his surprising death. I had no idea he was even sick. His camouflage of his cancer was so complete it caught nearly the entire world by surprise. So there’s that. The shocking surprise of death, the reminder . . . there is an end.
I was not a “Bowie-head.” I knew some. Before there was a mass culture appreciation for the androgynous eccentric, these were my 70s and 80s friends that even artsy kids like me found a little much. Bowie inspired a kind of haughtiness in his most dedicated followers, they were one of the first groups to espouse the “if you understand then I’m not doing it right” aesthetic. Steeped in my heteronormative upbringing they made me nervous. I found the gender boundary blurring unsettling, as I found the boys as attractive as the girls.
I passed through a 70s hard rock phase, then an 80s Springsteen + dance music phase, then in the 90s – I don’t know. It was kind of “whatever” decade wasn’t it? But through all of it, Bowie was a constant. My first Bowie fave was Fame. I orbited the Ziggy and Aladdin Sane era without landing, picking up only what was played on the radio, and enjoyed trying to imitate his iconic voice. The Lets’ Dance era was heavy on my party mixes. Then in the 90s I was one of the few to really like Tin Machine. And soon after, also one of the few in my circle to really like Black Tie/White Noise. After that, in this decade and the one past, I was collecting iTunes songs of his the way middle-aged people like I do, suddenly feeling like I wasn’t complete unless Young Americans was somewhere in my collection. Eventually, I bought Ziggy Stardust and began to understand it as the cultural marker it is.
I have always loved eccentrics. Of course, it’s a way to love myself, and how odd I feel I am. I have always believed that my chosen field – theater – is the island of misfit toys, where kids like me go who couldn’t fit in anywhere else. And in the panoply of cultural eccentrics, I think no one was more our champion than David Bowie. I was a private school white boy, far from the New York teens I sorta knew who were dying their teased-out hair bright red, buying knee-high boots in thrift shops and decking themselves out in mascara and jewelry. I went to a coat-and-tie school where clogs and thin ties were a bold statement of protest, and got called “fag” in the hallways when I wore them.
I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. I was looking for successful, powerful people who charted their own course and celebrated their own eccentric identity, before throwing it off and picking up a new one, just because they felt like it. And Bowie’s transformations were astonishing, complete, each somehow authentic, somehow saying “no, I’m not going to pick one, I’m going to be who I feel like being when I feel like being him or her.” I sought out artists who proclaimed the pre-eminence of artistic creativity unapologetically and unconditionally. In my youth I was too steeped in insecurity about sexual roles and masculinity to truly embrace what Bowie stood for. But in my sadness and awe around his death it is clear what a hero he was to me.
I used to teach a class called “Introduction to Theater” (and what an absurd title to a class that is.) It was a taste of the Western dramatic tradition from the Greeks to . . . whatever I felt like ending with that particular semester. A constant however, was that I always started with The Bacchae. It was a way to explore the development of Greek theater by looking at where its “golden age” ended up, and to consider what Euripides was confronting with this play. But the more I taught it, the more it became about the character of Dionysus: the divine, androgynous outsider who confronts the conventional patriarchal power structures of Thebes and absolutely destroys them. “Does Dionysus exist today?” I would ask my students. And they would shake their heads no. Then I would play YouTube clips of Prince, of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and of Bowie.
Later in that same class we would examine the phenomena of cross dressing. We would discover that men playing women has had a distinctly different effect through the ages than women playing men, and we came to understand this too as an effect of patriarchy: when the dominant gender reverses, the cultural ground shakes a little. In The Bacchae, Thebes is destroyed by an earthquake Dionysus unleashes on the city. Today, as we navigate the continuing unfolding of gender identity, and admit that anatomy is not destiny, we can understand this journey as an ancient one; a fierce and noble questing to the end of who am I?
I believe that artists are prophets. We see what we believe in, and then we love it and work it into being. We are not bound by the ordinary, the conventional, the reasonable, the realistic. We practice acts of faith, walking bravely into places that haven’t existed before, and proclaiming from them. We call our followers into the future. Bowie did.
It’s hard and scary to be an artist. The world, in its understandable need for safety, cries out at us: don’t go there! That’s nuts! People will laugh at you! And they do – but we go anyway. Because if we don’t, oftentimes we feel we will die. I believe Bowie saved lives: closeted, depressed, young lives who – like me – were possessed of chronic otherness. We had dreams we felt we dared not believe in – too outrageous, too defiant, too sexy. We needed heroes. And if we were lucky, we bought some vinyl with our allowance money . . . and we found them. And if we were brave and crazy enough, we followed them, and then we found ourselves.
Finally, there’s Blackstar.
To wake up, learn of his death, download his final work of art, and realize he is saying goodbye in music – it’s mind-blowing. It is the defeat of death. Not literally of course, but as much as anything, he’s saying creativity is eternal, the creative spirit never ends, it’s more powerful than illness and mortality, here, I’ll show you. I will sing mysterious questions about my own death, which I am experiencing as I sing them.
Hero. No question.
Thanks for leading the way, David, right up to the end. We are saluting you . . .