Featured image: Aladdin Sane, 1973
When I became aware of him in 1972 I was a child living with an unfathomable free spirit mother and was uncomfortable with Bowie’s colourful strangeness. Part elegant alien, part harlequin he looked like something out of a renaissance Alice in Wonderland court.
But his music worked into my muscle memory so that every time I hear Space Oddity I am filled with hollow poignant trepidation and revisit the unspoken belief that one should not leave your wife and children on planet earth to go rocketing out into space on a new science that held no guarantees you could ever make it back. The moon be damned. It was a metaphor for my own life, parents who could not fulfill their roles as my caretakers. Major Tom floating in a capsule lost in an airless universe imprinted forever a visceral memory as I lived temporarily and tentatively with relatives for several months at a time until my mom was fit again.
“Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”
— David Bowie (Space Oddity)
To be myself, what did that even mean? 10th grade modern dance class had us experimenting with free form. It was the edge of excruciating forcing myself to cavort within those pale green walls across from the gigantic mirrors, though a few short years later I could dance with the best of them on the floor of Gazzaris in Hollywood.
“Fame, makes a man take things over. Fame, lets him loose, hard to swallow. Fame, puts you there where things are hollow”
— David Bowie (Fame, Young Americans)
Its robotic mesmerizing sensuous funk filled the studio and classmate Stacey, in sky-blue leotard, contorted her body in various expressions across the floor. I watched, envious. And embarrassed. Not for her, but for the other girls who also watched and had not a clue how to move past their self-conscious machinations, or their arms and legs. Stacey became irritated with one of them when she smiled and giggled with admiration “Ohh, you’re so skinny!”. Stacey grimaced cruelly and moved to the other side of the room. She was light years beyond us. Like Bowie, she marked for me an X in time, which I would want to travel back to.
On a Sunday last year in January, I learned David Bowie had died. Hearing those first few chords of Rebel Rebel, an addictive desire for life ignited in me — the edge of it, how it hurts, ultimate fruition just before it rots and completes.
“They put you down, they say I’m wrong.”
— David Bowie (Rebel Rebel, Diamond Dogs)
Perplexingly, I never felt a rebel in any sense. As a child, mystified, I watched adults grow their hair, beards, don loose romantic clothing, wear patchouli, and smoke weed. Later the flatness and cynicism of the seventies descended, after Nixon proved to be a liar. I observed all with depressed boredom. What was this world I could not trust to behave itself? My mother, as always, comes to mind – her crazy creativity and insatiable desire to make things, to paint, sew, write, to create a world that seemed to spill over from her imagination.
At six I could see her world. At thirteen I could not. She looked to me as society saw her: mad and maybe on the verge of dangerous. They were right, but not completely.
But she was my rebel. She saw things I couldn’t see. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there. She fought against constraints that I can only appreciate in retrospect. Rebel, rebel how could they know? Indeed how could anyone know who had not walked that tightrope of imagination and the point of no return. I saw it in my mother, in the way she danced, the frenetic need to create beauty, to see beauty, to make the world better than it was.
“Rebel Rebel, you’ve torn your dress,
Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel Rebel, how could they know?”
— David Bowie (Rebel Rebel, Diamond Dogs)
David Bowie has died, and with him the possibility that there is now no possibility of finding a way for what we feel on the farthest outreaches of weird – to render it and create with absolute defiance in the face of stultified mediocrity. And that it may no longer be safe to do so. Rebel rebel, my mother was never acceptable – eventually not even to me – but it is because of her and maybe because of David Bowie that I can write these words, that I attempt anything that places me outside of the box. I have her genes. She has given me some talent. We are artists. Bowie was an artist extraordinaire.
I grieve, rationally, irrationally for both of them. She was mine.
He was ours.
For more self-study, The Urban Howl recommends Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story.