My first experience with David Bowie began much like anyone else who were born out of the 80’s and early 90’s, when during a Twinkie and orange soda infused sleepover, a few hyper active 8 year olds watched a VHS simply titled “Labyrinth.” It was the usual Jim Henson Muppet brigade, filled with plenty of crude punch line 80’s jokes, a handful of creepy goblin puppets, and incredibly questionable taste in wardrobe. However, the actor cast as the leading antagonist, (Jareth the Goblin King) caught my very young attention. No, I don’t mean in the obviously overly exenterated pants department, (lol) but in the way that I picked up on a vibe of a person who exuded that “something extra” factor. I promptly asked our motherly supervisor of the night who this man was. “Well, that’s David Bowie dear! We like him.” Well, yes, of course.
Flash forward to Summer of ’98, when once again, when beginning a slumber embarked with over sized pixie sticks, and Ho Hos, my BFF and I once again stumbled upon this gem at the video store (Yep, this was still a happening thing in the 90’s.) Labyrinth was revisited, only this time it was my friends turn to become enamoured with this Rock fashion icon. Bowie fever had hit at 13, and for all I could tell, was here to stay.
We watched Labyrinth more times than I could possibly count that summer, memorizing every line. It was so apart of our summer routine, that my Dad searched for a copy, eventually buying out a weathered version from a local rental store. Original box; this was a serious score. However, eventually, we needed more. My friend, who had cable (jealous!) caught and recorded a rare documentary complete with current interviews on VH1. We watched it like a couple of giddy school girls, caught up in the mystery of this oddly charismatic and unique individual. Once again, we were hooked.
The following weekend I bought the first David Bowie CD I could find; a jazzy album from 1993. On the weekends that my friend would stay over during the school year, we would listen to that album on repeat (sorry mom!), building forts out of my blankets and sheets. My friend, who I will call “H” would doodle ridiculous cartoons that would often feature David Bowie as one of the leading characters, ensuing many giggles, and solidifying his presence as a major memory in my adolescent childhood. I still have the comics, though I haven’t read them in years…
While I enjoyed the prestige of holding interest in the great rock n’ roll icon instead of the usual Back Street Boys, Britney Spears, or NYSNC (insert any generic boy band here) of those days, uniqueness wasn’t something to be proud of, and all I wanted as a 14 year old girl in a new school was to blend. While other girls plastered their Tiger Beat posters of “heart throb’ pop stars in their lockers, and on their clear front 3-ring binders, I only allowed myself a small photo tucked into the inside pocket. I’d sneak a peek during a particularly boring class ( good molly 8th grade history!) . This was not done in vain & little did I know then, but David Bowies flare for “total you-ness” was shaping me into the artist I am today.
When I wasn’t in school and could fly my freak flag proudly, I tried to find more clues about who this Bowie guy was. Occasional segments in a Rolling Stone magazine, and random interview transcripts online (the internet wasn’t what it is today) gave me tiny tid-bits. I was thrilled when he made an appearance at the 1999 MTV Music Awards; a rare in time sighting! At the time, it was incredibly frustrating how private he was in his personal life, and in his celebrity status, but now its something I admire most.
What I did learn of him outside his music career and early theatre life was how curious, brilliant, and passionate he was in everything he did. He was an avid painter, and a frequent collector of art pieces himself. A leading innovator in fashion, always looking dapper as hell from look to look. His musical depth and lyrics, while sometimes hard to follow (what did he mean there?) displayed a mind always engaged in questions, theories, and new concepts, always one or two steps ahead of the curve. His musical genius changed the very way we as a culture looked at Rock N’ Roll, Pop, and image acceptance, but he never seemed to let the fame go to his head, always using it to call attention to some other worldly matters. This was my first lesson in the knowledge that with fame and status came great responsibility. Power could be used well or just as easily abused. I carry this lesson still today.
Long ago, there use to be a strange store in the Podunk town I grew up in where you could buy records, CDs, incense, mood rings, and trinkets galore. As teenage small town residents, it was our duty to frequent this dark age shop that smelled of bad decisions and patchouli. On one particular occasion, I happened to glance behind the counter at a double CD feature which had caught my eye; David Bowie Live in Philadelphia, 1974. I worked in the family barn for weeks shovelling horse manure and milking dairy goats by hand to earn enough to take this goldmine home, hoping beyond hope in my teenage heart no one would snag it before me. When I finally had enough, I raced downtown, money in hand. Then, with that melancholy faded CD cover safely tucked into my back pack, I walked what felt like ages before I made it home, promptly disappearing into my room for 100 minutes of musical bliss.
My greatest defining Bowie memory didn’t come until 2002, when the Area 2 concert line up was announced. Busta Rhymes, Moby, and wait for it—DAVID BOWIE. I couldn’t believe it! And while he wasn’t coming to Portland, they were making a stop at the beautiful Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington State. My closest friends and I didn’t waste anytime getting tickets. Now all we had to do was wait…for months. The anticipation was killing me, and was well earned. I would actually get to see my musical hero in person in my lifetime, which with him being 55 at the time left a possibility of never actually happening. I am so thankful to my mom who let me go, and to H’s Pa for taking us; another Bowie fan himself.
You can guess the night before the concert, we were a bunch of giggling buffoons, way too excited to sleep. It was just like Christmas Eve, and I wanted morning to come so I could unwrap my present. We hit the road well before the first light, and endured hours in the mid August heat at the open arena, waiting for the show to start. While David wasn’t the headlining show finale (This honour went to Moby) it was clear after talking to various concert guests that the majority of the crowd was there to see Bowie. The excitement among everyone present was almost unbearable. I had never been around so many Bowie fans, and so many of close age to me even! It had seemed we had finally found “Our people”. The concert is a blur to me really anymore, but I do remember it was AMAZING, and his stage presence and connection with the audience was as good as ever. Singing both a mix of new and old hits, I was so exhausted by the end of the night…I think I was asleep before my head even hit the pillow! During his performance, we had made it up to the very front; if my hands reached out and his did too we could have touched! At one point, a fan threw a dress out onto the stage, and being David Bowie, he put it on and danced around for a number, throwing it back out when he was done. And wouldn’t you know I caught that dress! Well, only to have it ripped form my hands by the taller girl behind me. I am a lady of class, but if I could go back, I might have socked her a good one. Heck, I could be wearing that dress today! I do possess one souvenir from this day though; a photograph of him on stage from a Kodak disposable camera.
Side note; We made T-shirts with Bowie on them using that awesome picture iron transfer method. God, we were so cool.
Flash forward 2016, and I realize a busy life in the real world has kept me from remembering the joy of my childhood. I placed these memories and my greatest artistic inspirer in the back of my mind, only looking back in various small spurts from then until now. Truthfully, I didn’t buy the last album released in 2013, had only heard one song, and only paid homage on his birthday every year and whenever it seemed to somehow apply in some little way. When I heard he was dropping a new album on his birthday, I paid little attention thinking I would get a chance as the busyness of the New Year died down. I posted my usual birthday reference on Facebook, and a friend text to pay respects as well. Two days later, he was gone.
January 10th, 2016, I was scrolling Facebook before bed per usual, when the announcement flashed across the screen. Everyone thought it was a hoax at first, as he couldn’t possibly be gone. He had just released this amazing epic album being hailed on all accounts, didn’t he? And hadn’t he just written and overseen a new Broadway production that was currently running in his home of New York City? Somebody dying of an awful aggressive disease just don’t do these things…do they? I fell asleep on the couch, certain that it was indeed a cyber hoax. I was awaken an hour later by my husband who confirmed it was being reported on CNN, and all the condolence texts started rolling in, as if I had personally known the man. I think I went through all the normal reactions of grief that night; shock, denial, sadness, overwhelming anxiety, but as I finally allowed my thoughts to taper off, I landed upon awe and amazement in the legacy he left behind for his family, friends, and fans. I think Elizabeth Gilbert expressed it best what I was feeling.
“ For the last 18 months (we learn only today) David Bowie has known that he was dying. He kept that information private, while spending his final months doing what he’d done his whole life—making outrageously original, beautiful, complicated art. He made a gorgeous album. He created a show, playing right now in New York. And then he released this, his final video, just a few days before he died—on his 69th birthday.
“Look up here,” he sings, “I’m in heaven.”
Can you imagine, to be making art like this (fearless art that both comforts and challenges) right up to the moment of your death? How do you do that? How do you BE that? To work with your death so imaginatively, in order to perfectly time out the last beats of your life? What a magnificent creature of creation, right to the end.
I am sad today, but mostly I am overwhelmed by awe. This is what it means to be a great artist.
From the beginning, this was a man who showed us how to do life differently than anyone had ever done it before, and now look how he has done death.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
Things I’ve learned from David Bowie
~ Embrace the strange.
~ Stay curious.
~ Never waste any ideas.
~ Be approachable.
~ Life is a great thing—get involved.
~ Do YOU—you’re the best at it.
~ Care about the world.
~ How to make the most of a manic artists mind; i.e. managing and working creatively with ADD, fear, anxiety, depression, erratic sleep, procrastination, and a generally over-stimulated mind.
~ How to face mortality with creativity, humbleness, and outstanding grace.
~ LOVE greatly