It surprised me yesterday, how deeply I felt the loss. I hadn’t been a superfan, hadn’t owned every album. What’s all this drama? My kids wouldn’t have named David Bowie as one of the artists Mom makes them listen to all the damn time.
But music is a mystery, how it worms into every corner of us, stirs feeling in places words don’t quite reach. Then, when a melody soars, the heart takes flight with it. When the soaring happens to a young heart – that heart belongs to that music, always. Superfan or not.
And if you say run, I'll run with you. . .
The very rare musician combines the soaring melodies with the smart lyrics and the astonishing persona, and if that package comes at you just as you are becoming a person, it forms who you are. And so it forms, years on, the way you make your family.
David Bowie was one of those musicians for me.
Bowie was everywhere yesterday. From our headphones to our car radios to the speakers in Trader Joe's, and I was 13 again all day long. Heartbroken, yet feeling oddly guilty that I hadn’t been paying him more attention in recent years – as with the loss of an uncle, maybe, one I’d been close to as a child but let the relationship lapse. Only on his passing did I put it all together, thrumming with awareness of how much David Bowie has to do with who I am.
When I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, being gay was something only famous people could get away with. And gender certainly wasn’t a spectrum.
Bowie played masterfully all up and down the scales of gender and sexuality ... A thought started to germinate: Maybe there are a lot of ways to be a person.
You’ve got your mother in a whirl
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…
My freshman year of high school, a boy named Peter — flamboyant as hell, but back then we just thought he was very excitable — wasn’t out. The jocks were jerks, and we girls created a protective, social cluster around Peter. He hung with us and did girly stuff and was safe, physically anyway, in our world. We knew he was different, but we left it alone.
David Bowie was the first inkling I had that Peter might be truly okay. Bowie lived so hard into the broad spectrum of himself. There he was — in a dress, in a wig. In a blouse, in a leotard, married to…wait! It's a woman! The hell…? But, isn’t he gay? Is he straight? Is he really a girl? Those cheekbones…
Bowie played masterfully all up and down the scales of gender and sexuality. I watched. He was just so okay with it all. I listened. A thought started to germinate: Maybe there are a lot of ways to be a person.
I was middle-class, cis-gendered, straight. But every teenager is basically a wreck, and I clung to Bowie's telling me: There are so many ways you can be. And while I could check all those boxes we called “normal,” Bowie was my first real look at the idea that it was okay to live outside them. I didn’t have the skin in the game that Peter did (how desperately he must have needed to hear It’s okay) but I did need to figure out how to be Peter’s friend. I stumbled through, my heart in the right place. We were nice-enough kids, but Peter must never have felt, for one minute, that he could be himself.
Junior year, I switched schools, and rarely thought about Peter. But Bowie remained in my adolescent swirl.
Turn, and face the strange… he suggested, time and again as I grew up. And when I did so, I learned that strange did not have to be a value statement; it could just mean … unfamiliar. I kept facing it. I kept listening. Strange did not mean bad, and it didn’t mean terrifying.
Now it’s time to leave the capsule
If you dare
Bowie-imbued, I grew up. I became a parent who hopes daily to live into an approach to the unfamiliar that he taught. An approach that goes “Look! There's something I don't know! Maybe I can know it, and maybe I will love it!” rather than “Uh oh. There's something I don't know. Probably it wants to hurt me.”
You like me and I like it all.
We like dancing and we look divine…
David Bowie was outlandish, full of wonder and life, boy and girl, craziness and challenge. He made the strange delightful, and the profundity of his impact on me came not from the outlandishness itself, but from the fact that his whole crazy package wrapped itself around a foundation that was fundamentally familiar: Kindness. Loving each other. Being who we are. Being okay with it.
“Under Pressure,” a Bowie collaboration with Queen, is the heart of one of the most important scenes in my family's shared cinematic lexicon — from the film Grosse Pointe Blank. John Cusack, playing a hired killer in the midst of an existential crisis, stares into the eyes of an almost unconscionably adorable baby.
The music swells and it’s Bowie:
And love dares you
To care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you
To change our way of caring
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Love dares us to care for the people on the edge. Love dares us to change our way of caring.
David Bowie taught a generation of us to face the strange with joy. David Bowie – proudly his own self, in every iteration. He showed a whole world what that could look like.
I have one story for you, Mr. Bowie, a tiny story that is my best example of how seeds you planted in me, in our culture, on the planet – came to flower in the world of my family.
When my son was in middle school, I happened to see a text exchange on his phone. (I wasn’t snooping, honest):
His longtime friend had written: “I wanted to tell you that I am gay. I guess I have known for a long time but didn’t want to know it. You don’t have to understand or talk about it but you are one of my best friends and I didn’t want to lie to you. You are the first person I am telling.”
And my son’s texted reply:
“Dude, Congratulations! It must feel AWESOME to know that about yourself because it seems like it would be hard to wonder. I am so happy for you and happy that you told me. If you ever want someone to talk to, I will always be your friend. Love ya.”
That’s on you, Mr. Bowie. Thank you. May you rest, fabulously, in peace.