I was very little when I first heard and saw David Bowie on the television. I was born in 1971 so I entered this world just about the time of Ziggy Stardust.
The first thing I heard my parents say about David Bowie is that he made "doper" music and it was something my Uncle Tom liked because he was a doper. I don't remember what I asked, exactly, but I must have asked something when I saw him on TV or heard the song on the radio. My memory has mostly to do with what they said. -Maybe I simply heard them talking to each other about it. "Space Oddity" was Uncle Tom's favorite song, they said, but they called the song "Major Tom" and they said he thought it was about him. This made them chuckle and shake their heads the way they did when I did something wrong. It all seemed very mysterious.
It was around that time I became aware of Ziggy Stardust being David Bowie but also not David Bowie. I was about four or five years old so I couldn't wrap my head around the duality and I don't think anyone around me could begin to understand it for themselves so my sense of confusion led me to let it go, rather than ask a lot of questions about it, especially since his costume (his platform shoes, in particular) and my parents' association of him and my then-unstable Uncle Tom scared me.
When I was just about twelve, music started to be everything to me and that's when I saw the video for "Ashes to Ashes" (the track/video had been around for a couple of years but it was then that music video shows started to become a "thing"). During my first "encounter" and this one, I hadn't given David Bowie much though at all, and here he was talking about Major Tom again!
"Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Major Tom's a junkie / Strung out in heaven's high / Hitting an all-time low"
The funny thing is that I didn't know yet that the term, "junkie" had to do with drugs. (Maybe he really was singing about Uncle Tom!) Either way, the video had him dressed in an entirely different costume than when I first saw him with red hair, sparkles and platform shoes. He was still weird, but the song was catchy and I didn't perceive him as I then saw "dopers." I was also then aware enough to know that no one, aside from my parents, used the term, "doper" anymore. That being said, the issue of drugs were all up in my face because of the nation and Nancy Reagan's campaign against them, which focused on us kids. I received a certificated signed by Nancy Reagan after pledging to be drug free. (Her signed "N" looked like a big "U" and for a while I thought her real name was, Uancy Reagan.)
At that time the TV was filled with anti-drug commercials showing me what drug addicts looked like and absolutely none of them looked as elaborately dressed as David Bowie. Drug addicts on the TV were people who lost their motivation and ambition and had absolutely no concern for fashion or music. They dressed in grey colors and had dark rings around their eyes. They sat on old, dirty couches. Their hair was tangly.
However disillusioned I was about the world of drugs, I was developing my own opinion of David Bowie, whether or not he was two people in one; whether or not he ever was a doper and/or wrote songs about my troubled uncle.
A year later I was in middle school and music really was everything and I heard his song, "Blue Jean" that did not sound odd or like it came from outer space. It sounded fun and had horns and background vocals. My friends and I acted like we were too cool to like a song that was getting as much airplay as this was. I actually thought it was an ad for blue jeans (there were a LOT of ads for jeans back then) and it was the first time I had considered the strangeness of an artist selling a product. Of course, it wasn't an ad, it was a song, with a music video to go along with it and by this time we all had MTV and it played over and over and over again in our homes.
Soon after that we had the release of "China Girl," "Modern Love" and of course the duet with Freddie Mercury, "Under Pressure" (I'm sure that I'm listing the order of these releases incorrectly). David Bowie was proving to be a hit-maker, even in the eighties. He was in Band-Aid and then Live-Aid, along with many performers that my friends and I deemed to be cool enough to like. Around this time David Bowie dressed in tans suits and acted as a goblin king in a Jim Henson film. I decided he was all right and payed attention to some of his old music in a new way; in my own way.
"gotta make way for the homo superior"
At that time there was also Boy George who, as far as I could tell, was mostly acceptable to everyone and he dressed in ribbons and wore makeup. Of course I understand that must not have been the case, but it was for me and how I chose to experience life, then. That year I dressed up as Boy George for Halloween and people loved it. I started to understand the value in dressing differently than others and each day I realized, more and more, that my parents' world view was limited.
By that time I had come to accept the fact that I was an artist. Not only because I was compelled to draw or paint or make good costumes, but because everyone acknowledged this in me. In my own little world, I was consistently rewarded for being creative and unique.
Now let's fast forward to age twenty-five. I think this photo might be from when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, but it was taken at a beach near where I was living at twenty-five. It reminds me of my next and final David Bowie memory I wish to share.
I was living with a man who had a big house (it was big to me). My "studio" was a bedroom that was on the second floor. It was in the middle of a redwood forest. I remember being in the shag-carpeted studio with a calendar from some pop-culture magazine that displayed quotes from artists, writers and musicians before each month.
There was a quote from David Bowie, and it shot right into me. The funny thing is that I can't even remember what the quote was, exactly. I attempted to find it on the Internet a few times, with no luck. My perception and/or memory of the wording must be wrong.
I had just had my birthday and I began worrying about my identity as an artist, and thereby my identity as a person on this planet. I wasn't really making art or even writing outside of my diary. I wasn't sharing anything I was doing with the world. I didn't know how to, and anyway, I was too scared to try. I hadn't yet gone to art school, because I was intimidated by others who seemed to understand more than I did. To put it simply, I thought I was too dumb and too poor.
The quote on the calendar or magazine, attributed to David Bowie, and how I remember it, had to do with being remembered as a bad artist. It had to do with leaving a legacy based upon his ability as an artist. It had to do with fear and it connected directly to something I had within me that was crippling.
I didn't like what he had said. I didn't want to worry about whether or not I was a good or a bad artist. It was hard enough for me to make art, let alone determine its worth. It connected to a panic I had regarding my reaching a place in life that others would see as, "successful," by the age of twenty-five, irregardless of the fact that I had not even clearly determined what success meant to me, or what truly mattered to me as an art-maker and a writer. Now that I'm older I understand that people often have that concern at twenty-five. I wonder if that calendar published a quote from a twenty-five year old Bowie?
Either way, that quote sat in my head for years. Soon after I read it I died my hair pink and began expressing myself through fashion. I collected brightly colored dresses made of rubber and plastic. I wore platform shoes and wigs. I have never made a connection between this time of my life and David Bowie, but I realize now that I was learning the value of the "outside" as a tool to express the potential and elusive, "inside" of who I was and am. I was beginning to learn the value of creating and acting as a character with a story and an invented world surrounding her or him, like Ziggy Stardust did. Platform shoes no longer scared me.
I think now about my first perceptions of David Bowie and later on learning about his creation of a character– Later on thinking about him in relation to identity and art while watching the film, Velvet Goldmine, and thinking about life-as-art, etc...
When I was thirty-two I went to art school and by then I had a completely different view of my art and its purpose. I had learned about so many artists; artists who care very deeply about their place in the world and people like Henry Darger
who didn't concern themselves with the value of art in regard to the canon of art or music or writing but are still very valuable within those worlds.
Now that David Bowie has left us I feel as though he lived as an artist who wasn't panicked about the value of his work, but perhaps he was. He seemed to live through the 90's and the 2000's as such a chill guy who seemed to be fully engaged in the adventure of being an artist and influential person on this planet, but of course that comes from my own perception, so who knows, right? The truth is I haven't even listened to enough of his music. I haven't experienced his albums in their entirety and now it's something that I will do.
I have two people in my life who have shared with me, stories of their spending a brief amount of time with David Bowie, throughout the years and in different scenarios, and both of these experiences went beyond a simple "I hung out with David Bowie" and into a treasured sort of mind-space. –One of many incredible moments lived, but incredible all the same. Lessons were learned, but perhaps it was because of who he was that every word seemed something like gospel. Like everyone recently, I've been reading people's stories online, from various different media outlets, of people who knew David Bowie or had a conversation with him through a chance meeting and they all seem to express a feeling of spending time with a whole-hearted person.
That quote going around by Simon Pegg recently about the earth being so old and the fact that we have been lucky enough to be here with David Bowie truly nails it and I'm really so thankful that so many people are feeling his existence as something special that they lived alongside of, if that makes any sense. A life as art/ A life is art...
Of course we all know that David Bowie was in fact, for a time, a "doper," but he survived that and was valuable all the way through it. He managed to create and share and create and share, repeatedly. Through my own life experiences, and during this time of living alongside the mutating/evolving/yet-somehow-consistent existence of Bowie, I grew into an artist pondering the dichotomous way of thinking encapsulated in Neil Young's famous line, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Although others have not only proven this wrong and changed the reality of that line entirely– David Bowie's life and death confirms something intuitive within me regarding life and art that changes the game for me, in a big way, once and for all. I think we're all kind of feeling that.
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.
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