When you're dealing with rockstars who had their heyday during the seventies, it must be a given to say--they'll die. Any given time, they'll die. Shame for choosing your idols among people in their fifties or sixties. But, when it finally happens--
I was not ready for that.
I must have seen David Bowie for the first time in, of course, Labyrinth, that hallucinogenic-driven Muppet fantasy. I hold no recollection of having seen him before. I might have heard him before, some disembodied name who at least, had a voice. It must have been "Let's Dance", since that song is a staple of Mexican classic rock radio. But seeing him? Don't think so.
Even as an eight-year-old, I was fully aware of what was "to like" a boy. I think I started "liking" Axl Rose and Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon when I was four. When they started teaching us kids about "the facts of life" I'm quite sure I knew I wouldn't mind Jon Bon Jovi furthering the teachings as soon as I became the right age to do it (I must have been like ten). However, I wasn't really aware of just what sensation the Goblin King had caused on me. Apparently, admitting I was insanely attracted to a dancing guy in tights with a weird hairdo was way too much for my 8-year-old brain and was quickly blocked.
I might have gone back to David Bowie when I was eleven or twelve and rediscovering rock through my mom's record collection. Yet, among what I was rediscovering and discovering on my own (grunge, Alanis Morissette, even the Waterboys) David Bowie stood there as a name meant to be named but without much meaning behind it. Someone I had to listen to. I listened to "Space Oddity" but failed to grasp it. I was only surprised at the change of style, from that acoustic folk pop to, well, "Modern Love".
David Bowie lingered, maybe in a lukewarm way, in my song collection (mostly dominated by Nirvana and Alanis--and even later 80's glam-rock ballads, the kind of glam-rock that was tacky compared to the glam rock Bowie executed) only showing hints of a certain inspiration with "'Heroes'" which I only had in the single version. So, it missed key parts of the lyrics. When I read them, back when I was 14, it seemed to me that the song was better without the admission of meanness and drinking. I was young.
But eventually, the Chameleon's time came. It happened when I was sixteen. In junior high, I had prided myself on being the freak at school. It seemed to me as a natural response to bullying taunts. Nobody would ever look at a chubby nerdy girl, with round glasses, horrible curly hair and braces. Being a freak was the way of protecting myself from the crowd, of the sure suicide that would have been the result of trying to fit in. I was better out.
Yet--in junior high school, I had my friends. My small yet precious circle of outcasts. We shared the same music tastes, the same despise for the popular kids, everything. The problem was when both my friends went away. One to a different school, the other to a different city. When I walked inside high school, the continuum in a private school system where you spent your formative years in the same institution, I was alone.
What came next was an attempt to adapt. I wanted to find a crowd in which I could fit in and not fall into the cool kid trap in which I had never felt comfortable--I eventually found new friends, including my now best friend, and I'm thankful for that. However, for a long time, my attempts to find friends seemed destined to failure. I eventually rejected my whole classroom and the majority of my classmates while longing for some sort of identification or guidance. A flash out of the lonely evenings listening to Pearl Jam. A way out of a prison dictated by the constraints of high school untold laws, which consisted on underage drinking, boyfriends, sexual experiences and dabblings with so-called provocative, even vulgar fashion. A world which found me outside, looking in, but not really wanting to join in. Looking in and then looking out towards a world I could call my own which was not there.
It happened during a Literature class. The teacher was unlike any other teacher we'd ever had. For starters, she was damned good looking (I don't mind if you're reading this) and her way of teaching was unlike other teachers who just wanted to teach us the basics about literature. She wanted us to compare, to relate. And, she loved rock n' roll.
Needless to say, I clung to her classes as that source of identification I was looking for. Which was easy, because the majority of the class was more interested in drooling over her/ignoring her than in anything else.
And, one day, she brought to class two key songs: "Midnight Radio" by Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Bowie's "Rock n' Roll Suicide."
The first song said: "All you misfits and you losers, you know you're all rock n' rollers, spinning to your rock n' roll." Bowie said: "Just turn on with me and you're not alone. Gimme your hands, 'cause you're wonderful."
Maybe it was because I was one of the very chosen few paying attention, but the songs came as a kind of epiphany. They were singing to me. I was not alone, I was wonderful, David Bowie was with me. He knew what I was.
We had bathroom breaks between classes. I remember running out of Literature class (something I didn't do because I always stayed behind to chat with the teacher) and locking myself inside a bathroom stall, crying tears of sadness and joy. There it was. The answer I'd been looking for,
I, then, rediscovered David Bowie. Of course, his Greatest Hits became my anthology for starters, "Rock n' Roll Suicide" my secret mantra, "Rebel Rebel" my pumping anthem. I had a binder with David Bowie's picture as a young lad. Nobody knew who he was. In the back of my binder he was a tad older, long-haired. Classmates confused him with a woman. One day, while at the computer room, a classmate caught me downloading a picture of him in a dress-like garment (The Man Who Sold the World album cover). She looked at me kind of strange. To hell with them. I refashioned my identity: the way I dressed, the insecurity of my image. I remembered being mortified when an old woman asked me why I wore earrings if I was a boy when I had been twelve, chubby, devoid of curves, short-haired. Well--who cared what I was? It wasn't an easy process--it took me years. It went well beyond high school and into university.
During my university years, I met the Bowie experts. The scholars. One could say they are the true fans and lovers. Even right now I have to admit--I'm nothing compared to them. They know every song, every lyric, every collaboration; they can identify the subtleties in Bowie's music: his jazz influences, his krautrock experiments, his dabbling in white soul. For them, I would be (maybe I still am) a Bowie aficionado, an "absolute beginner" (they probably hate this song), someone who can't really appreciate the man's music and genius in his entirety and that would probably not get his songs at the first chord. Bowie is theirs for the taking; still, my Bowie songs remained steadfast, deep in my heart and my ears. My David Bowie. Later, I bonded with my first students, teenagers, over our love with classic rock and they knew about my love for the boy from Brixton.
Eventually, I graduated college, started teaching to the aforementioned teens and as time or fate or the heart would have it, I fell in love with a girl. This marked a new stage in my relationship to David Bowie. What articles on gender studies couldn't make clear, my own flesh and feelings and Bowie did. He became, then, more than the rockstar: he became the LBGT symbol. His stage presence, the tales of debauchery, who he might have bedded and who he might have not--all of that became, for me, the example of gender fluidity. Just as Bowie could not be pigeonholed, every tag applied to gender dynamics got lost while I looked at Bowie's outfits, myths, performances. Internet allowed me to read personal experiences of the LGBT community and their identification with Ziggy Stardust--who, in the end, showed me you could be Ziggy, Aladdin, The Duke, whoever's lover--and that maybe you would end up having a likely heteronormative marriage and a child. Who knows? Love was unlimited and as changeable as his persona. So, Bowie helped me along the difficult, sometimes terrifying process of accepting myself as a person who could love both men and women. He helped me grow more comfortable in my own skin (even if I haven't come out for fear the shock might kill both my parents. At least I know what I am and right now I'm on the straight side.)
Of course, as time went by, "'Heroes'" grew in significance. When I boarded a plane towards England for my Masters, the very last thing I saw before I set foot on the island for the first time was a documentary about Bowie. The very last song I listened to before stepping into Heathrow Airport was "'Heroes'". By then, the unnamed characters in the song have grown closer to me. I had grown fond of their failures. I had started to find myself in them, finally. And as time went by and I lived, cried and found myself in Europe, the song buried itself deep in my heart as something ironic, poignant, yet hopeful. Both flawed "heroes" have the chance to challenge an insurmountable obstacle, to leave "the shame on the other side" just for one day--a day they shall remember forever, or a day that would become the start of forever. The outcome is not certain, but they can always try--as though nothing could fall.
And yet, this is all a selfish interpretation. The David Bowie I have just written is undeniably corrupted by my very own perception and reading of him--as a concept and artist. Yesterday, I got many sweet and moving condolences--one, from a former student, read: "I know I'm not the best person to say this, but I'm very sorry about David Bowie's death, teacher. I know you admired him greatly. I send you lots of love." The respectful address of "teacher" towards me, added to her fond memories about my admiration towards the changeable rockstar, show that in her mind I'm a part of her David Bowie experience--an alien woman glued to the alien. My friends had a sort of similar experience too when they heard the news and "they immediately thought about me."
This entry--this is also something selfish. This is what I wish could have told Bowie himself. I never did. He might have gotten a myriad of fan letters and tweets and posts--this one would be another one, lost in the crowd. A more selfish, impossible wish: I wish I could have said these words to David Bowie while holding his hand, before he died. But that is not something meant for me. That privilege is limited to the people that knew the man: his wife and family, who knew David Robert Jones, not the fan-distorted pageant of characters that reinvented themselves and continued the story of Major Tom, as the Empress in Michael Ende's Neverending Story. A neverending story under different names.
They knew David Robert Jones. We knew David Bowie. And he's not only the cast of characters he created. He's a different character for all of us. I know right now I'm nothing but one fan, among many, who thought that when he sang "You're wonderful" he meant them, and only them. And yet, the Bowie in our hearts is a personal treasure. He's our very own Starman, our very own shooting star, perverted and changed by our own wishes, wants, needs, desires, passions.
Forever changing, I think he would have liked that.
Wherever you are, wait up in the sky... David.