For Those of Us Whose Identity Is Slippery, David Bowie Was a Secular Saint
I think it was called Sunshine Records, a small shop near Woodford tube station at the bottom of my road. I was 11, perhaps already 12, and pop music was beginning to take over my life. My first purchases were hit and miss, mostly miss; a couple of forgettable New Wave singles and a Britfunk song that I played on an ancient dansette record player that had belonged to my mum (the kind with a heavy lid and a speaker hidden behind a fabric cover at the front). I owned one album, by Ultravox, a band I liked for their bombast and portentousness. They sounded epic, an escape from the mundanity of my daily life, the racist bullies at school, the nameless sexual yearning that already threatened to overwhelm me. I had enough money (£1.99? £2.99?) to buy another album, but only an old one. New releases cost more. So instead of whatever chart act I coveted (likely Adam and the Ants) I found myself flicking through the reissue bin. I’d never heard of any of the artists. All I had to go on was the covers.
For a kid with a science fiction habit, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was an instantly intriguing title. Something about the colourised cover photo seemed askew; out of time. The singer was called David Bowie, a boy’s name, but no boy would dress in shiny purple boots and a turquoise jumpsuit, open to the waist. Carrying a guitar, he or she was posed outside a grim-looking Victorian building on a city street. It was night, and the scene looked threatening, yet this creature, bathed in yellow lamplight, seemed swaggering and confident, one foot up on a low wall. If some skinheads came along, you had the feeling that s/he would frighten them away just by playing music.
On the back cover, beside the track list, the same figure was in a phonebox, staring insolently into the camera. I found that image frankly disturbing. The mop of blonde hair, the lithe body, the hairless chest exposed by the unzipped jumpsuit, one nipple just visible – these were the kind of triggers that had begun to populate my sexual daydreams. But, below the waist, the jumpsuit’s Aztec-style circuit-board pattern was creased by an inescapably masculine bulge. I liked girls. Boys who liked boys were bad. I wasn’t attracted to this figure, was I? I found the picture upsetting, slightly repellent. It was a message from a more complicated world.
I had an impulse to put it away, to look for something safer. But the song titles contained thrilling science fiction words like “moon” and “star” and in white letters at the bottom, beneath the names of various people who’d worked on the record, was a sort of challenge: “To be played at maximum volume.” I went to the counter and handed over my money. Nothing was ever the same again.
So that’s my Bowie story. It still feels private, a highly personal moment of aesthetic shock that determined much of what happened to me afterwards. Even before I’d heard the extraordinary, otherworldly voice, or spent hours failing to unpick the elliptical lyrics, Bowie’s visual image breached my defenses and began to issue challenges. Yet, as an adult, I know that this experience doesn’t just belong to me. In fact, it is almost laughably common. Friends – writers, artists, musicians, and others whose strangeness or wildness is expressed in non-artistic ways – have frequently recounted stories that have the same shape, are animated by the same feeling that Bowie reached inside them and began to offer directions towards a fiercer and brighter world.
So when I say that I used to be able to make myself cry by mouthing the words to Heroes with my eyes screwed up tight, or that I find it almost impossible not to conduct an imaginary cinema orchestra when I hear the words “sailors fighting on the dancefloor” and the sound of descending violins, I know I’m recounting something mundane, that the depth of my emotion is shared by millions of others around the world, each with their connections to Bowie’s work as profound and personal as mine.
For those of us whose identity (sexual, racial, national or otherwise) is involuntarily ambiguous, who have to make the best of our inauthenticity, David Bowie has been a kind of secular saint. As I began to understand that the alien figure in the phonebox was only one in a series of mutations that would continue until yesterday, with the terrible news of his death, it dawned on me that Bowie’s slipperiness was a riposte to the kind of hostile questions that dog the inauthentic, that dogged me as a teenager, that still, come to think of it, dog me today. Questions meant to fix and crush. What are you? Where are you from? Bowie taught me that when they demanded your identity papers, you didn’t have to comply. Or if you wanted, you could invent your own papers, tell whatever damn story you pleased. His bravery and breadth will not be seen again in the world. Nor his exalted sensibility or his beauty or his voice. We will miss him.