Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie

David Bowie

There are many eulogies for David Bowie today, and many personal reminiscences, and I cannot say that I have much to add to the discussion of his musical or cultural legacy in the broadest sense. I liked a lot of Bowie, loved some of his work (probably not yours - my favorite LP is Low, a hit-free record; I always thought “Let’s Dance” was literally a joke by Bowie, maybe to settle a bet he could get a number one hit if he chose to), but I was not a hardcore fanboy the way I am or have been for some other contemporaries.

But Bowie was my avenue to becoming a better human being in a particular way, which in many ways is superficial, not profound, but real nevertheless. Bowie converted me from being a homophobe as an adolescent; not entirely directly, but by understanding he was very important to people around me, and in that subtle walk between establishing my own identity and unearthing empathy and activating it for adult use, I’m pretty sure he saved me from being (more of) an asshole than what could have been.

Let me set the wayback machine to the mid-70s. If you were a boy living in the midwest back then, you can be pretty sure you’d be called a faggot as a routine insult. It was part of the territory-marking process of males, setting pecking orders, and if you were different in any way from the pack, you were a “faggot”. Adults made disparaging remarks about homosexuals, particularly men, routinely. Without much understanding of what it was, it was made clear by people around me all the time that being gay was just about the worst thing ever.

It’s hard as hell being an adolescent, and I can’t ever quite appreciate how hard it must have been back then to be gay in that kind of culture.  Developing a sexual identity is a universal part of being a human being, and the conflicting mass of messages from societal norms, moral strictures, the throbbing mass of our tribal and family cultures come into paradoxical conflict with one’s own developing personal identity.

I do know that as a young, virginal straight male, in the 70’s. it felt imperative to establish I AM NOT A FAGGOT from well before the age of physical sexual maturity. The urge to do this was strong and came with many perceived advantages. Advertising availability to the opposite sex; having access, at least in theory, to mainstream groups of peers; not getting beaten up.

So in my earliest teen years, I participated in the disparaging jokes. I called other kids “fag”, although it never felt as satisfying being on the giving end as it felt degrading being on the receiving end. I wore “Death Before Disco” t-shirts with an explicit anti-gay message (and no one called me out on it). And I hated David Bowie. Because, you know, he was a faggot.

Bowie’s gender-ambivalence/questioning need not be explicated, but it should be remembered the concept of gender spectrum and identity was pretty much binary back then. As a consumer of pop culture, I had little appreciation of nuance. I picked my first 7 inch record purchases because the songs were popular, and I wanted to be part of that feeling, if not the reality. (For the record - my first purchases, in 1976, a year before I discovered punk, were “Silly Love Songs” by McCartney/Wings and with recognition of the appropriate retro-irony, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Sir Elton John and Kiki Dee. I’ve always been a romantic.)

Why would I like Bowie? The word down from the older kids, especially the boys, was if you liked him you were a fag, too. So other than the odd song on the radio, I never listened to any Bowie, nor did I seek him out.

Evolving one’s taste in music, at least pop music, is also a common exercise of adolescent identity-building. Like the John Cusack character in High Fidelity, I’ve occasionally rearranged my record collection in autobiographical order. It’s a history of influence as much as self-discovery. First, following my older sisters’ favorite artists (Carole King! Gilbert O’Sullivan!), and the ones popular with other kids in my class (see also: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.) Buying an album because I liked the single on the radio. Finding a record at the public library and taking it home based on the cover and finding something new. Reading about a song, or an artist who influenced another artist, and buying the album of the influencer. Hearing the unknown opening act at an early concert experience and finding their obscure record in the bargain bin. Finally, finding other people who liked those things, and having them play their records for me. I can show you my evolution from the Beatles’ 1967-1970 compilation to Zen Arcade, from the Ohio Players to Howlin’ Wolf, with at least one other person responsible for my step from spine to spine. Culture is by definition a collaborative project.

It’s a process of listening, but with open ears, and not to get too schmaltzy, an open heart. Questioning the concept of “liking” something, making choices between intellectual aesthetics and the logic of moving your butt to the beat, being dogmatic and wrong or dogmatic and right and then graduating to accepting and willing to listen, literally and figuratively, to what moves another person. You find all sorts of things that way.

I was a dedicated and soon to be hardcore punker for quite a while, but an omnivore at the same time. It was among my punk friends — a group safely outside the inward-spiraling social orbit of school, for the most part — I first became aware that I actually *knew* some other people who were gay. And they didn’t try to convert me, rape me, or by their mere presence brainwash me. The path from glam to punk was unknown to me at first, but the New York Dolls were all that it took to sell me on the idea that cross-dressing was no impediment to a good thrash song. It was one of these friends who had the imported version of the first Clash album, who had a copy of Too Much Too Soon, and a stack of seven inches actually purchased in England, who re-introduced me to Bowie.

The particular album was Station to Station, which is a pretty damn good album, strange (for the day) in the long length of its tracks and the low number of cuts on the album. As in the glory days of vinyl, it was a record that demanded you sit in the dark and listen. It was definitely more disco than punk, in retrospect, funky, layered; fun. And I got a dub tape of this friend’s “greatest hits” of Bowie that day, giving me a chance to really listen to the lyrics of anthems like “Rebel, Rebel” and “Changes” and “Fame” and the like.

I listened, instead of of reacting on face value to my perceived image of Bowie, because I’d learned that there were great rewards in discovering new music that way. And slowly, understood the larger lesson of discovering new people, and not being afraid of them, that way. Bowie mattered to this friend, quite a bit, and while he never quite penetrated my soul to the same extent, from then on I could understand how important he was to others.

I can’t say as I remember a particular epiphany about connecting Outsider status on matters of simple taste in music, or in politics, or the condition of oppression based on class or ethnicity, with that of sexual identity, but I do remember taking out my “Death Before Disco” t-shirt one day a few months after getting that personalized Bowie “hits” tape and listening to Station to Station all the way through in the dark, with my friend — a person as weird and outcast as I was, maybe in different ways, but a person, whole and individual and connected to me. I didn’t have to love Bowie to like my friend; he didn’t have to be a Ramones fanatic to be a good person. He didn’t have to be straight to be a friend. The t-shirt had been a staple for concert-going, once upon a time — and on this day, I looked at it anew, realizing the illustration on it was making fun of gay people. And on that day it felt wrong, and I put it away.

Turn and face the strange.