Growing up in a small town forced you to have an imagination. I remember watching Cosmos as a child and thinking about the Earth in its infinite smallness hanging in space; to me the planets were closer then, and I imagined I could see them looming on the horizon. Childhood is a time of possibility, when fantasy and reality mesh.
I was eight when I first heard David Bowie. It was Space Oddity, the first track on the compilation album Changesonebowie. My older sisters had it on vinyl. It wasn’t like anything I had experienced up to that point. It contained a sense of alienation. Of loneliness in the void. It rang so true, like all great art.
In the late seventies, we upgraded from vinyl to cassettes. My first Bowie cassette was Hunky Dory. I chose well in hindsight. That album was a secret world where I could escape. That album contained slices of life I couldn’t fathom as a child. Oh! You Pretty Things with its references to Nietzsche; Quicksand referenced Garbo, Himmler and Aleister Crowley; Song for Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol were etudes on those artists who I would learn about long after Bowie introduced them. It was like Bowie’s own private tutelage in 20th century pop culture.
Bewlay Brothers remains one of my favorite tracks. It is so lyrical and confusing, with oblique references and that chilling ending raising the specter of his insane brother. Heavy stuff for a kid.
Then came Ziggy Stardust. Alladin Sane. Diamond Dogs. Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, and Scary Monsters. I hit adolescence listening to those albums. Deeply moved by them, I only had glimpses of their meaning. Remember: this was pre-internet. There was no Twitter or Facebook.
When I realized I was gay in my teens it all made sense. Even though Bowie’s sexuality was never too explicit, his pansexuality was a breakthrough for me. He frightened me and I realize now that was because I saw myself in him, as so many LGBT teens did. Wearing a Bowie t-shirt in my teens was enough to ensure you would be called “faggot”.
Now that Bowie is gone, just two days after his 69th birthday and release of his brilliant new album Blackstar, it feels surreal. I think back to the David Bowie is exhibit that came to Toronto in 2013. Boys Keep Swinging was playing, and there is that great scene when he walks out in drag and smears his makeup. In 2013, people were still laughing, taken aback. He is transgressive even now, decades later.
Great artists always upset, confuse, and educate. Some say his lyrics were meaningless, but not to me. Everything can be found in there. A snapshot of our lives on this tiny rock hurtling through space, stuck in the early part of the 21st century.
Rest in peace Ziggy. You are not alone.