Catching up with David Bowie

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I came relatively late to David Bowie.

It started one night in York, a city in the north of England, during the winter of 1976. Times were tough in Britain then; unemployment was high and strikes were rampant. I rented a room from a single mom with a son who was slightly younger than me. He took me drinking at a workingman’s club where we fell into a fevered conversation about music.

Afterward, he showed me scrapbooks full of snapshots of he and his friends, dressed in all manner of Space Oddity gear, their faces painted like Aladdin Sane. For him, Bowie had provided a key for unlocking collective imagination, unleashing a pent-up flood of dayglo energy.

I’d been unsure what to make of Bowie. Rock music had always been about breaking down inhibitions, especially when it came to sex. But that scene had always been decidedly heterosexual, a cavalcade of mannish boys either strutting their stuff or waxing sensitive, though no less in charge for that.

Rock, and the sexual revolution it reflected, had been a boon for straight people like me, but it left a lot of other folks and ways of being out. In this, it wasn’t nearly the change agent that many of us thought it was. In fact, it was rather stodgy, which meant we were rather stodgy, too.

David Bowie didn’t merely challenge rock’s sexual stereotypes — he blew them to smithereens. Ziggy Stardust, his early, gender-bending persona, was a masterful provocation. Through Ziggy, Bowie unpacked and reassembled generations of sexual imagery, creating a powerful metaphor for what was actually happening in peoples’ lives. Then, by choosing rock as his medium, Bowie reinvigorated the form, demonstrating its theatrical capacity to refresh and explore otherwise time-worn themes.

I was getting an inkling of all this that night in York. First, though, would be the music itself. My friend had just bought a copy of Bowie’s latest, Station To Station. Had I heard this yet? Bowie had moved on, traded his space alien for a thin white duke with juggernaut guitars.

That sealed the deal for me.

In the years that followed I would see Bowie perform at the Arie Crown Theatre in Chicago, a massive hall he somehow managed to pull around him like a cloak. Better still, was his turn as John Merrick, in The Elephant Man, a part ideally suited to Bowie’s sense of physical theatricality and conceptual preoccupation with loneliness.

In loneliness Bowie found his greatest, most important theme. Look beyond the provocations and the pop cultural temptation to see given works as permissions of one sort or another, and you find an artist absorbed by the paradox of how all our expanding means of connection leave us, as individuals, more isolated than ever.

If Bowie seemed to have an uncanny ability to read the zeitgeist, catch and express the strange ways in which our technologies shape us, this may have been due to his very primal feeling for how alone we ultimately are. In this the man who fell to earth was really everyman. People will be catching up with him for years to come.


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