What Bowie Meant to Me

One of my earliest memories is of playing tag with a friend, but it was a version I made up: one person was the “Scary Monster” and the other was the “Super Creep,” from the 1980 Bowie album. Based on where the memory takes place, I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old.

I inherited my love of David Bowie from my older brother Zack (pictured below), whose own love for Bowie was (and is) all-consuming and complete. When Zack departed our rough little town for college, he left a lot of books and tapes and records in the attic. I found them. Particularly I found the Bowie tapes and biographies. I remember listening to a dubbed cassette of “Ziggy Stardust” and being surprised to find that I already knew all the words. They had been imprinted on me when I was a toddler. By the time I was 14 I had read at least three serious tomes on the man, and knew many of his records by heart. The trove that Zack left became the basis for the identity that would see me through my teenage years.

The discovery of these books and albums coincided with a lot of changes in my home life that made me afraid and confused. I picked several artists to be my family, mentors, lodestones, and guides: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie. But Bowie was the first I chose.

It’s rough being different in a mill town that prizes conformity to a static masculine ideal. I was probably called “faggot” more than I was called by my real name, for a number of years, my actual sexual orientation notwithstanding. David Bowie was key to my survival because he taught me that you could take the things that made you different and not just accept them but make them a source of pride. You could wear your freakishness like a crown. Rather than feeling like an ugly, discarded outcast, you could view your separateness as specialness. Maybe you weren’t a loser who couldn’t fit in; maybe you were a strange and exotic alien, hidden and unheralded among earthlings.

Bowie never left me. I took some hard right turns into old American roots music, but I never discarded Bowie. If I didn’t play his records as often in recent years, it was largely because I can listen to them in my head, any time of night or day. His songs course through my blood. I use words that he taught me. I find things beautiful or ugly based on an aesthetic that I learned from him. Now that he has died – and made his death his final, elegant, and strangest work of art – his life has been wrapped up and tied with a bow and we can see it complete for the unequaled gift that it was. I don’t know what his spiritual stance was in his final years – he’d engaged deeply with Buddhism from a young age, dabbled in occultism, worn a cross and publicly recited The Lord’s Prayer in the 80s-90s – but there was something deeply spiritual, even Christ-like in the way he created a sense of safety and belonging for freaks, misfits, queers, weirdos, outcasts … leper messiahs.

It really hurts me to lose Bowie and other great artist-teachers that have passed recently. I don’t see anyone filling their shoes. I know I might just be myopic in my musical perspective, but I think the culture has fragmented in a fundamental way that has made it much more difficult for truly epochal artists like Bowie to emerge. I hate this feeling of getting older and losing these people. I know that the work will always exist, but there is a genuine grief in knowing that Bowie isn’t somewhere on the earth right now, breathing this air. I like this world a little less without David Bowie in it.

But now I am truly being morbid. I know that Bowie was listening deeply to the latest Kendrick Lamar album in his final year. He was always listening to new music and seeking new art. Surely there’s a lot of great stuff being made. It’s just that, when I was young, I drew certain teachers to me, and they formed a circle around me to protect my spirit. Losing them is very hard. I loved David Bowie and I feel his absence both around me and inside me. I will read the plaudits and tributes but I will also retreat inside myself, deep down in my heart of hearts, to find the treasure that he left there long ago when I was scared and I needed his help.

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