How David Bowie Bent My Gender

January 11, 2016

This is a strange bifurcation point on our blue planet. From this point on there is no David Bowie to share the world with. Like people born after 1980 who claim John Lennon, or those born after 1959 who claim Billie Holiday (as they have a right to), every child born after today will never anticipate hearing David Bowie’s new song on the radio or changing their fashion to fit Bowie’s new style. It’s all just back catalog now. He can’t be truly their peer. Fortunately there’s enough there for future generations to mine for inspiration.

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Roy in England that just said, “Sad day for music.” A sense of dread swelled up. I know that I am likely to witness the passing of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith. What will the world be like without them? For the moment we share the same sunlight and oxygen supply. When there is a lunar eclipse, I know that Paul McCartney and Toni Morrison are looking at it, too. I know there is a chance that I could bump into Smokey Robinson or Elton John getting coffee in an airport somewhere in the world. We share this tiny globe together.

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But not with Bowie. He is gone so unexpectedly. I was in New York City all weekend and was waiting for today to get Blackstar, his heralded new album. The beginning of the next phase of Bowie in our lives. Would there be a tour? Would I get a new haircut to look like him? Again? I should have found him on his deathbed there in Manhattan to thank him. A kiss on his alien eyelids.

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For those of us that came of age in the 1970s, David Bowie was more than a “rockstar.” He was an avatar of our awkward young selves as gangly beings who had just fallen to earth, genderless and omni-sexual. I was an Apollo kid so it started with “Space Oddity,” and imagining the astronauts circling our troubled planet. But when Ziggy Stardust arrived, I could see clues to a third path, somewhere between male and female that was beautiful and personal. Glam rock was liberation, even if was just the thought of it. “Rebel, rebel. You’ve got your mother in a whirl ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

That was the beginning of me wanting to grow my hair long. Endless battles with my mother (“Boys with long hair are all on drugs!”) and my father (“Why would you want to look like a girl?”). Each half inch it grew, you’d get called “fag,” and “queer,” in rural Georgia. (Of course, once Willie and Waylon grew their hair out all that ended.) If word got around you were a Bowie fan, that was like declaring your homosexuality. “You must be AC-DC like him!” I didn’t really care. The music came from some place magical. His self-declared bisexuality created a safe zone for us as we engaged in our own space exploration. My sexuality was never an issue. The sanity of the world I expressed it in was.

All us misfit kids had Bowie. Before punk roared in, we had Bowie to speak for us and to tell us we were wonderful. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” must be an anthem for so many young people, both then and now, who feel zero validation from the straight world. It’s a reason to reject suicide as an option.

You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair

You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care

Oh no love! you’re not alone

No matter what or who you’ve been

No matter when or where you’ve seen

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain

You’re not alone

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In fourth grade, when the other kids were obsessed with the Captain and Tennille, me and my little goon squad were memorizing “Young Americans,” and “Fame,” (listening for John Lennon’s voice). It was like a secret society. You had to say, “Oh yeah, Deep Purple rocks!” and then find out what kid in the neighborhood had a copy of Diamond Dogs you could borrow, being sure to hide it from your parents’ gaydar.

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Bowie always defined gender non-conformity. Wearing make-up, dying his hair, wearing a skirt on Saturday Night Live. In a culture obsessed with a simple gender binary, what could be more rebellious than that? Boys keep swinging! For all us kids that didn’t quite fit in the butch boy/femme girl box, we had permission to mix and match and create something completely new.

My first sociology professor at Oxford College who radicalized me in so many ways had a bit of blind spot around queer issues. I remember him trying to make the case that we are all sexual but socialized to be heterosexual and if that process gets messed up we end up confused, “like David Bowie.” I remember thinking, Wait, that’s not right. Bowie’s not “broken,” he is just free and rebelling against social constructions of gender. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

So, yeah, I have every piece of music that Bowie has released (except Blackstar, which is sold out all over the city). I have b-sides and oddities. Have you heard the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)? You should. I’ve seen him in concert several times. My favorite moment was at Live Aid in London in 1985. I was right front for the global event. All my favorite stars were there. I should mention that I really hated Bowie’s Let’s Dance album when it came out in 1983. It was such a commercial piece of fluff compared to 1980’s Scary Monsters (although it has aged better than I have). So I was supremely bummed when he opened with “Modern Love,” my least favorite Bowie song. But then he played “Heroes,” and it could not have been more perfect. We were there trying to feed the world, just for one day. There were tears everywhere. Bowie transformed us.

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He transformed us many times. He loosened us from our moorings. He made being smart and aging into your 60s look really, really cool and never stopped playing with our weird obsession with gender roles. All the kids that got beat up for being “Bowie fags” can have the last laugh (the ones that weren’t murdered, at least). Now that he’s dead, everybody will claim him as their own.

He’s never not been with me. His ex-wife, Angie Bowie, was my first guest speaker at Emory, delighting my students with tales of Ziggy and Iggy and the glam explosion. I courted my wife, Andrea, with mix CDs that linked Bowie songs to Nina Simone songs. When Cozy was born, I sang “Little Wonder” to her repeatedly (and “Space Oddity” when I strapped her in her car seat). And she’s napping to Station To Station as I write this. I want her to have the sexual and gender freedom that was so hard for us over forty years ago. But for all the goon squads out there, Bowie made it a lot easier and cooler.

A lot will be written this week about the Thin White Duke as a “chameleon” and all the ch-ch-changes he went through, the movies he made and the fashions he inspired. I just think about us kids who didn’t fit in who got to feel that we had a very special space boy on our side.

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