My first recollection of reflecting on the artistry of David Bowie – let’s get it out at the start: multidisciplinary genius from whom I would later steal shamelessly a thousand times over – has been marred by my mother’s re-telling of the incident; she insists that I was two at the time, making little chronological sense, but we’ll forgive her in this instance as she and my father exposed me to his glory while I was still in utero. In any case, I approached her at a very young age with a perplexed look upon my face and a question as absurd as any child’s random query: “how does a frog tremble?” She paused for a moment, and as kindly as a parent could attempt to answer such a question, began vigorously to seize, limbs flailing. I looked blankly at her, now more confused than ever, and asked “but why would a frog tremble?” She has no answer. I become irritated, and at some point when she asks why I’m asking, I reply in song; “if you should fall into my arms and tremble like a frog.”
My love affair with Let’s Dance knew no bounds, like my ability to mishear and accept and repeat utterly senseless lyrics – “for fear of grey chiffon,” being another high-quality example from the title track. As soon as we had a double-cassette stereo situation in the house, I recorded and re-recorded myself singing lead on Modern Love whilst scolding younger cousins I’d engaged as backup singers – when one of them faltered, I’d erase the ‘session,’ hand out notes and resume ‘from the top.’ These tapes – which I only wish I knew still existed – were likely lost to the shame and embarrassment of my preadolescence, much to the shame and embarrassment of my adult self, who wants nothing more than to be comforted by totems of prescient awesomeness from my youth.
Of course, I saw Labyrinth like everyone else, and like many people I know now, but unlike the children with whom I watched it, I was not frightened, but instantly obsessed with Jareth’s speech; his style; his movements; and the dangerous sex he exuded onscreen, where, even when playing opposite some of Jim Henson’s most bizarre creature characters, he seems perfectly at home in the chaotic, emanating incandescent beauty but generously never stealing the scene. He is simply of this fantasy world. Why on earth Jennifer Connelly would give up the chance to be his queen and live in a magical realm was baffling to me, as the idea was immensely preferable to the chore of returning a baby to her boring peach-toned 80’s upper-middle-class parents. Never had I felt such total rage as at the absurdity of Sarah’s indifference to still-pining Jareth outside her window – as an owl, no less – and I felt my creepy ‘they don’t love you like I love you’ outrage (later to be delivered like a brick to our community chests via the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Maps‘) whilst watching Sarah party with her imaginary puppet friends to David Bowie’s songs as he flew off alone. I was besotted with this outsider and destined myself to similar exile in hopes of meeting THAT.
As a teenager, my parent’s record collection my newly-snatched stereo and brand-new guitars paved the way to enslaving me to music, which would eventually become my greatest love. Already listening to Nirvana, Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue and Sonic Youth’s cover of The Carpenters’ Superstar, I fell hard for Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, before vinyl led to my discovery of Bowie’s albums and was subsequently influenced more by him than by any other artist.
Because of David Bowie, I became quite controversial about gender at a very young age; obsessed with staving off what I saw as the inevitable consequence of being a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl – that people would make assumptions about who I was, my views, and my capacity in the world. So, in response, and to much parental dismay and peer confusion, I cut and dyed and shaved my head in innumerable dubious styles; paired men’s clothes with a full face of makeup for years until I began experimenting with costume as regular dress; I became drawn to and involved in the Queer scene and finally – having felt a wolf in sheep’s clothing for most of my childhood and teen years – felt that I had found my tribe. It may be argued by some, but I credit Bowie’s artistic and political influences as being a driving force in bringing not only Queer music and art to the mainstream, but pushing acceptance of Queer rights politically on the world’s stage. No, we are not there yet – not by a long shot. But Bowie, with his intellect and with his tremendous art posed questions, contradicted societal norms and undoubtedly paved the way for all of us lifelong outsiders who as part of a changed world, have access to dramatically more freedom to express ourselves as a result of his confidence in breaking down boundaries in the name of love and art and human rights.
So, back to me and David because this is a selfish post about our relationship: I’m in my teens, and I’m into music, and art, and genderfuck, and drugs, and not giving a shit about anything but living artfully and absorbing everything counterculture I can. I go to Madame Tussauds on my first trip to London and take fifteen pictures of their Disneyland-esque Space Oddity display. I come back and listen to the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, and Iggy Pop, get turned on to Trent Reznor and through him, Marilyn Manson. I meet David Lynch via Lost Highway and we fall in one-sided surreal love that I re-live year after year into my adult life. I was always a voracious reader – even devouring Shakespeare while essentially pre-verbal (again, according to my mother), but I read and re-read Clockwork Orange, 1984, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Lolita, and On The Road among dozens of others. I take acid (a lot) and read Naked Lunch listening to Lou Reed, and later discover Cronenberg’s film. David Bowie’s Earthling comes out while I’m listening to Orbital and Aphex Twin, and unlike everyone who’s hating it for not ‘being Bowie,’ I’m ecstatic to be delivered a Bowie who’s making something I feel part of. In no way am I suggesting it trumps Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane or Scary Monsters, but I’d be ‘Telling Lies’ if I didn’t say I was obsessed with I’m Afraid Of Americans and Little Wonder – which introduced me to the work of Floria Sigismondi. If I had never fallen in love with David Bowie, it’s likely I never would have been exposed to even half of what would become the most influential works of art I derive so much from, even subconsciously.
Still sporting a shaved head and piercings in delusional defiance that anyone gave a shit – to my idiotic twenty-year-old mind, David Bowie and I like are acquaintances at a party at this point; I’m these children that you spit on, clinging to rebellion and slow-growing into an entity that will one day spit on others. Bowie songs play at The Bovine Sex Club and I impress no one by knowing the words because we all do, but on occasion blow the already-blown minds of older friends for knowing how to play Moonage Daydream on a ’67 Telecaster. Except for living with abandon the freaky freedom I am indebted to him for, we’re kind of out of touch, unless I’m wasted or nostalgic for a nostalgia that isn’t even mine. Apart from jamming some of his tracks and DJ’ing a gig with his ex Angie – the closest I ever get to being near him – I’m a shitty and ungrateful friend to Bowie for some time thereafter, until the playing dress-up he inspired gets me into parties and paid to hang out with rock stars (who I find out are generally either boring or assholes); and playing guitar gets me into studios and a record deal right around the time Bowie is casually dropping background vocals on artists that I’m painfully in love with, and his endorsement seems just to solidify that it is right – and so, even after years of making music and even being signed, I find my voice, and it’s a vocal coach who calls it – ‘that is your voice!’ – In my head, I swear I’m singing in David Bowie’s voice. It doesn’t come out the same, and I don’t write lyrics about spaceships, but every time I go into the vocal booth, I am delivering the same method: murmuring “I know when to go out..” I’m purring oohs and ahh and have a lot of love for a minor note or delivering a spoken-word first verse. He is always around, and I cite him as a main influence in interviews, as if the costuming, the bleached pompadour and so on aren’t blinking DUH and visible from space.
Like everyone else, I woke up on January 11th to the news that he was gone. I spent much of the day tearful in a daze, and listening to each album in order, before I realized I needed to get out of Notting Hill which was solemnly going about its business. I went to share my brokenheartedness beside of thousands of others in Brixton also devastated by the loss of this irreplaceable artist. In tribute to his memory for all the freedoms I’ve forgotten and taken for granted, I wore the most outrageous costume to hand and made up my face like a post-futuristic Kabuki star. I shared tears and Jameson’s whiskey with friends and strangers, and joined what became about 200 fans’ spontaneous singalong while telling the press to fuck off down the road to the Ritzy which was rapidly becoming a street party I wanted nothing to do with – no judgement on those who did; I was filled with love for those who could put on their red shoes and dance the blues, but I’m an outsider, melancholic and still in shock, still singing Starman with tears in my eyes – like an owl at the window outside the party.