The word chameleon is often used about Bowie. Here he is in full glam regalia. Here he is in white soul crooner mode, slicked back hair and skinny tie. Sixties folk enfant. Berlin-era avant.
It’s an entirely understandable confusion. Through a 2015 lens, it’s hard to tell if Bowie ch-ch-changed to suit the times or if the times adapted to him. His influence is as pervasive as it is (seemingly) effortless and the hanging verb in the title David Bowie Is reflects this brilliantly.
David Bowie Is opened last Thursday and I was there Friday night. I loved every minute of it, for the exhibition itself; for the gay, straight and trans crowd out in force; and for the memories, long unbidden, of the role Bowie played in my own journey to adulthood.
David Bowie has said hearing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti for the first time was like hearing, “the voice of God.” I saw Bowie well before I properly heard him. He had a double-paged spread in my dog-eared copy of the Billboard Encyclopedia of Rock, from which I memorised every image, every phase of Bowiedom.
I was 13, growing up without a Dad in my daily life and just beginning to understand myself as a sexual person. I don’t know if I knew I was heterosexual at that point because, unlike my gay friends, I’ve never been asked when I realised I was straight. But I knew I wasn’t like the other kids and I knew the version of masculinity I was expected to emulate wasn’t me. I hated organised sports, more for the way they enforced the social pecking order than for my lack of mastery. I hadn’t yet learned to moderate my smart mouth so I was always in trouble with my teacher. I liked Orwell, the poetry of Auden and the plays of Eugene O’Neill. And I loved David Bowie.
Bowie wasn’t mainstream cool then but he wasn’t obscure either so his 70s canon could be bought on vinyl for $3.99 at Tower Records. I bought a stereo at a garage sale for $25 and worked my way through his catalogue in my room, the mismatched eyes on my Thin White Duke poster staring down at me.
Hunky Dory led me to the art of Andy Warhol and the Factory era. Diamond Dogs was the soundtrack to whatever Orwell, Huxley or Anthony Burgess I was reading at the time (many of the songs having been written for Bowie’s ill-fated attempt to stage 1984: The Musical). The Man Who Sold the World gave voice to early teenage alienation, not just for me but I suspect for another kid roughly the same age, also being raised by a single Mom in the Pacific Northwest, who went on to cover it on Nirvana Unplugged.)
Of course I think about it now and cringe. All that angst and self-pity, what was the point? But it was an important part of growing up.
Southern California in the mid-80s was a sprawl of social conservatism and non-stop Top 40 hits. Thankfully, around the age of 15 I discovered SoCal hardcore punk, but even that was through Bowie via Iggy Pop. (And through my Mom, also an adventurous music lover. I still have her copy of London Calling. Sorry Mom.)
I started going to see bands from LA like the Adolescents, Social Distortion and the Circle Jerks, as well as local heroes the Descendants and touring bands like the Cro Mags and Agnostic Front. I met other kids from all over who were called fags at their schools (because they were gay or just different). I met other kids who were politically engaged. I discovered zines and started my own. My male role models became Jello Biafra (it’s ok to be smart, angry and funny), Ian Mackaye (it’s ok not to follow your peers) and Steve Ignorant Of CRASS who sang sarcastically, “If you want to be a man, you better act like one. Show off your muscles. Use your prick like a gun.”) I shaved the sides of my head and bleached my hair and wore my leather jacket to shows but I could still wear my Bowie t-shirt. Bowie got respect everywhere, even the most unlikely places. As John Lydon said in his memoir (Anger is an Energy):
“Bowie was propagating this man-love imagery, but he was doing it in such a brave way that … football thugs liked the audacity of it, and the toughness, and suddenly outrageous gay people became warriors, respected by hooligans. It’s a good lesson to learn about the way things really work – what you’d think would be exact opposites could sometimes meet at the same place. If you stand up for whatever it is you really believe in, if you really stand up, and be accounted for, people will rate you highly.”
David Bowie heard Little Richard and the voice of God. Keith Morris, the singer of the Circle Jerks, sang “my life was saved by Darby Crash.” Everyone needs someone like that to tell them, as per the refrain from Bowie’s Rock and Roll Suicide, “…you’re not alone.” Kids have the internet now, but we had records, fanzines and all ages shows.
Of course part of becoming an adult is learning not to rely on any group for your identity. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, at just being. That’s why the exhibition title is so right. David Bowie is whatever you want him to be. But he also just is.
When my own children bring home their first boyfriend or girlfriend I’m not likely to ask him or her about their intentions. I won’t play the protective father, thereby denying my girls their sexual agency. I’m much more likely to sit them down and ask, in all seriousness, “So…what do you think of Bowie?”