Following the passing of iconic musician, actor, and artist David Bowie, City Paper staffers reflect on his work and its impact on their lives.
David Bowie has appeared in most of my sex dreams. I didn't lose any of my idols or fantasy partners as a teen, so now I want to hole up in my bedroom like I would if I were 16 in 1994 or 1980, maybe go out and get an impulsive Bowie-related tattoo, and blast "The Man Who Sold the World," "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)," "Let's Dance," and his last two albums, which by the way were very good—thankfully, Bowie was not infected by old-guy mediocrity. In the wide scope of his 26-album and 50-year career, it hasn't been very long since I was in high school and Bowie's influence became a recognizable part of my life, so it's difficult to grasp the fresh but immense impact he had on my generation—a post-"real" MTV generation and pretty much the last generation to have the good fortune of enjoying his art while he was a living legend. But I do distinctly remember learning from Bowie not just that identity can be art, but that it can at times be fun, and not a constant weight to cope with (what I and many really needed to hear as adolescents). For me, part of this meant recognizing and embracing fashion as a legitimate joy, like art and music, not a superficial tool to lock down gender or personality "type." Bowie expressed the malleability of identity and artistry through his morphing appearance and glorious wardrobe, film and stage roles, and the range of emotional responses evoked through his music. But all of his music, even songs of existential dread like 'Space Oddity' and 'The Man Who Sold the World,' made me want to get out and fuck you up, loosely here defined as expressing ownership and agency over one's identity, which is priceless. I wish I were older so I could've experienced more of his career as it unfolded, though I'm also grateful to be able to look back on it as a single exquisite and complex work of art. Thank you, David, for giving me beautiful dreams. (Maura Callahan)
As I woke up yesterday morning, I couldn't process the news David Bowie had died. He just released an album, I thought; that really has no bearing on how or when someone dies, but it made sense to me in that moment as I rolled out of bed. I soon learned it was true, and that everything about Bowie's last release, "Blackstar," was carefully planned as the singer battled cancer, according to producer Tony Visconti. I hadn't yet made time to listen to the album, released on Jan. 8, meaning I missed the small pre-death window of experiencing this work as simply a new Bowie album, nothing more, nothing less. Watching the video for 'Lazarus,' featuring Bowie writhing in what looks like a hospital bed, his eyes bandaged with buttons placed where the pupils would be, made clear that the album was meant to be imbued with something more—it was Bowie's final, grand artistic statement. The long synth tones, skittish jazz percussion, and somber saxophone give six of the album's seven songs an elegiac feeling, as Bowie nods to his fate, with lyrics seemingly about the afterlife ("I'll never see the English evergreens I'm running to/ It's nothing to me/ It's nothing to see" and "Look up here, I'm in heaven"), time slipping away ("Where the fuck did Monday go?"), and his diagnosis ("I know something is very wrong"). There's still a lot to parse here with repeat listens, but I was particularly struck by album closer 'I Can't Give Everything Away,' which sounds slightly more hopeful with its warmer tones and opening harmonica. It almost seems like there's a bit of black humor that can be read into it, like Bowie is referencing all the stuff he'll leave behind, his possessions and ephemera. But there's a bleaker interpretation too: the words of a man knowing he has more to do in this world understanding he won't be around to do them. No matter your take on it, the album's mere existence offers a sense of comfort, something I found in the form of a tweet from Australian writer Mark Pesce. "Bowie looked Death in the eye and thought, 'I can use this,'" he tweeted. For me, that's a great summation of Bowie: an artist who was forward-thinking and boundary-pushing to the very end. (Brandon Weigel)
When I was a kid, I'd sit in the living room and pull out my dad's records from the peach crates he stored them in, mostly just to admire the album art because we didn't have a working record player at the time. Once, I was struck by the cover of David Bowie's 1976 compilation album, "Changesonebowie"—a very subdued, stripped-down look, a three-quarter-view black-and-white photograph of his beautifully angular face, with his hand at his mouth, kinda contemplative and serious. I think it was my first introduction to an example of androgyny, that men can dress and appear femme and it's cool and beautiful and it really doesn't matter, though of course my thoughts at the time weren't any more developed than something like, "Wow, this person is pretty." My dad also had Bowie's 1990 compilation CD "Changesbowie," which uses the same photo as the 1976 cover, this time with a pretty funny collage of his earlier covers/looks ("Ziggy Stardust," "Hunky Dory," "Aladdin Sane," "Diamond Dogs" etc.) circling around his face. We brought that CD on family road trips throughout my whole childhood and adolescence. Bowie was also a part of my nascent interests in art; my dad and I would listen to him on our way to downtown St. Petersburg where we'd sit and draw somewhere or go to a museum. ('Rebel Rebel' will probably always remind me of when I was 13 and awkward and angry and trying to figure out, for the first time, how to be a person.) It's rare to encounter an artist whose work gives you something new every time you revisit it, and Bowie did give us so much, not that that means it was always flawless or great. But all of his changes and experimentation and weirdness affirmed that nothing's set in stone, that we can always play with how we look and sound and think. (Rebekah Kirkman)
My first experience with David Bowie was not through albums or radio rotation, as no one in my house, meaning just my disco-queen mom, was into Bowie's 'Space Oddity' antics. His brand of weirdness didn't marry particularly well with gallon jugs of Yago Sangria, Donna Summer on repeat, and basement dance parties seasoned with good weed smoke. No, my run-in and subsequent fascination with the reedy white performance artist from the UK started as I thumbed through my prized issues of the gore mag, Fangoria. As a proud member of the MTV generation, of course I recall at an early age freaking out at seeing Bowie as a strung-out Pagliacci leading a group of Goth chess pieces and his grandmother around an LSD fever dream in the video for 'Ashes to Ashes,' but it was the cruel elegance of his bisexual vampire John Blaylock in "The Hunger" in a Fangoria feature that caught this future photographer's eye. Though I would have to wait until "The Hunger" went into seemingly infinite rotation on the new cable channel Home Box Office to really appreciate the class and '80s sleek of Tony Scott's horror masterpiece, I didn't have to wait that long to see Bowie on the big screen in his role as The Goblin King and accompanying cod piece in "Labyrinth." The character skyrocketed the androgynous Mr. Stardust into a whole new dimension of sexual desire for kids who were just getting to know who they were and how they would later self-identify. With Labyrinth, Bowie's character made it OK to wear heavy eye shadow or wigs despite what your parents said. It was a "kids" movie, after all, and we were just "playing." When high school reared its ugly head, it was time to seek out VHS copies of "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence," "Basquiat" (where he played an amazing Andy Warhol), and of course, "The Man Who Fell To Earth." Unlike other rock stars in leading roles—think Mick Jagger in "Freejack"—Bowie didn't suck. His roles seemed to mature with my taste in films. He managed to consume a role to the point that all you really remembered about the film was that he was in it. His turn as Nikola Tesla in "The Prestige" comes to mind. Just as he flowed between the gender binary, Bowie could successfully transition from singer to actor and back again. I will miss him greatly. (J.M. Giordano)
I first heard David Bowie sometime in 1976. The proud owner of my first real stereo, I’d just discovered the likes of Jethro Tull, Zeppelin et. al., and would twist my radio dial in a dumb search for rock. Bowie’s then-new "Golden Years" followed one of my favored metallic dirges, and it was a revelation: Rock also sounds LIKE THIS? From the tentative harmonica open through the jazzy, funky "whawhawhas" and the big, orchestral backing to Bowie’s steel voice, promising to "stick with you baby for a thousand years," I was as sure of anything I’d ever been.
I first saw Bowie in July 1983, at Hartford's Civic Center. The Serious Moonlight tour supported his "Let's Dance" record, which I thought of as a comeback after a few hitless years. That turned out to be his biggest tour ever, to his surprise. The show felt like an endless party—although that is probably an artifact of the 18-year-old version of me. I remember someone in our group scamming a scalper for tickets, using a dollar bill with the corners of a 10 taped on. And I remember Bowie holding an acoustic guitar high as he strummed the apocalypse of 'Space Oddity.' "I think my spaceship knows which way to go," he sang. "Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows."
Seven years later Tin Machine took the stage in the same venue. It was a weird show, toward the end of the Sound + Vision Tour, his second and final with the band he formed/joined in the late '80s to get his mojo back after "Let's Dance" turned him into a reluctant (and failed, he thought) pop star. It was noisy and fast and hard—Bowie commanding, amid a punked-up wall of guitar, 'Don't Sacrifice Yourself.' As Bowie and co. screeched and shrieked on stage in the old, air-conditioned house, I remember feeling uneasy, but that I should remember this. (Edward Ericson Jr.)
As a teenager, I wanted to do all the things David Bowie (who is dead now) did: He was smart but didn't totally take himself seriously and he fucked ladies and dudes and he did a lot of drugs and he pissed people off and freaked them out (by just being him, by doing priggish and reprehensible though also kind of hilariously trollish shit like seig heil-ing) and made thoughtful, witty, paranoid art that made other people feel less alone in the world—the wiggly glam-rock albums (my favorite: "Aladdin Sane") and the moody, coke comedown ones (my favorite: "Low") especially. Better yet, Bowie never bought into the the rock 'n' roller archetype (as a kid mostly into hip-hop and dance music, this was crucial). Instead, Bowie teased rock dick moves and indulged them enough that it had the effect of meaning everything to "outsiders" as well as appealing to the meat-head types who called the outsiders "faggots." That some of his songs are now everybody's songs highlights Bowie's appeal—as well as the cognitive dissonance necessary for normies to maintain rigid, conventional masculinity but hey, that's no surprise.
Pop music's best as a mindfuck and Bowie mindfucked everybody (more recent types in the mindfucker mode of Bowie include Kanye West and Lady Gaga). Being very popular and very weird is very important, especially before the internet rolled up and flipped everybody's shit around and alienated us and made us more connected in new unprecedented ways. When Bowie jacked moves from folk, soul, disco, hippy rock, Reagan-era pop, industrial, and more and made them his own, it never seemed as though he was dicking off, which is what so many artistic seachanges seem like. He made a quick fling with subgenre or subculture seem like it was all that mattered in that moment. There's lots of talk of Bowie as an "original" and all the rest but he was really more a glorious riffer and remixer than a visionary, but he provided inspiration for others that came after him. Too often when those in power pull from the more powerless for their art, the buck stops with them. This was not true with David Bowie.
Mostly though, Bowie's music, even at its most grim, has a kind of subversive exuberance to it and I think this is best illustrated by Bowie's music popping up in the movies. In 1981's "Christiane F.," a ravaging movie about heroin addiction, a group of geeked-up teens run through Berlin's Europa Center, falling on top of each other, laughing, and busting shit up, all set to Bowie's 'Heroes.' It is a gorgeous, fitting representation of youth recklessness as any. And then there is that scene in Leos Carax's indefatigably romantic "Mauvais Sang," in which Denis Lavant sprints down the street, contorting his body, freaking out, seizing, dancing, and backflipping to Bowie's 'Modern Love'—a perf expression of the excitement one gets when you're full of feelings for another person as any. (Brandon Soderberg)