After James Bradley’s ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.
David Bowie was really the first artist I found on my own as a young adult. Bowie came to me in a humorous, intertextual way, through watching Zoolander at the age of about 16 at Birch, Carroll & Coyle Cinemas, Coffs Harbour. I worked there so movies were only 50 cents, and I must have seen Zoolander about four times. Some of you may remember the moment where Bowie shows up, to call the ‘walk-off’. When the legend steps into frame, just a small section from ‘Let’s Dance’, plays: ‘Let’s dance… duh, duh duh duhduh’. Well this refrain haunted me. I found myself sitting in class, trying to concentrate on Othello and ‘duh, duh duh duhduh’ would repeat, over and over. I knew this song, from one of my favourite teenage movies Gia, starring Angelina Jolie as the tragic, bisexual, gorgeous and wild ‘original supermodel’ Gia Carangi. I’d liked the song watching the film when I was 14, 15, 16 – but now, it was absolutely glued in my head. I also remembered reading, in the biography of Gia (Thing of Beauty by Stephen Fried), about her being a ‘Bowie kid’ in the ’70s, and I remembered the fact of his open sexuality – this being a big thing that attracted me to cultural icons in my teens as I was struggling with being open about my own attractions.
But it was the song itself – that tiny part, which began the obsession. The first CD I bought was ChangesBowie, a best-of, which of course included ‘Let’s Dance’. It features magic from all eras (‘Space Oddity’ through ‘Blue Jean’). I recognised many of the songs though never knew they’d been by the same person. My parents had the Pretty Woman soundtrack when I was a kid, and there on ChangesBowie was ‘Fame ‘90’! Those-in-the-know started to recommend albums, the first being Hunky Dory – and I fell in love with the song ‘Life on Mars’ and, being an Andy Warhol fan, dug the song about him: ‘I’d like to be a gallery/Put you all inside my show’.
Every time I bought an album I was astounded by the lyrics, and then the way the music & lyric combo had this sad, nostalgic pull on me. What was I nostalgic for? And yet the songs also made me feel wrapped-up and warm (perhaps covered by moondust). I find that the songs are complex – the upbeat songs often have an undercurrent of collapse; the blue songs have a playfulness to them. There’s history and science and spirituality and love and mirrors and magic and intellect and the ordinary and the universe in an album. And definitely transience, and death. There are stories – the album Diamond Dogs, inspired in part by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a glam-carnivalesque, tragic, epic science fiction ode to desire, dreaming and oppression. In the past two or three years this has become my favourite album (along with Low – particularly the second half). From ‘We Are the Dead’, a fucking amazing song:
‘We feel that we are paper choking on you nightly
They tell me, Son, we want you to be elusive
But don’t walk far
For we’re breaking in the new boys
Deceive your next of kin
For you’re dancing
Where the dogs decay defecating ecstasy
You’re just an ally of the leecher
Locator for the virgin king
But I love you in your fuck-me pumps
And your nimble dress that trails’
For my seventeenth birthday my good friend Simon bought me the Best of Bowie DVD: two discs of his incredible film clips (now my most-watched DVD). I was fascinated by the weird, druggy, soft-focus post-modern direction of David Mallet, who did many of his film clips. I was inspired by the transgressive, chameleonic appearance of Bowie – his camera-flirt face, his bony hips in tight circuit-patterned jumpsuits, his ‘coolness’, his glamour, his paleness, his sadness, his out-of-itness (the hilarious ‘DJ’ clip), his regret, his silliness (‘Dancing in the Street’ with Mick Jagger, his evolution (jazz, synth, metal, hip hop, techno – see ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ or ‘Hallo Spaceboy’). He’s always new. He’s the artist you never get sick of because you just go through moods with him – the different albums, the different eras, the different styles – and this through-line of drama, emotional complexity, and other-worldliness (fighting the constraints of this world).
Although my parents had listened to Bowie when they were young, he wasn’t someone they listened to when we were growing up. Bowie belonged to a certain set of memories and emotions, particularly for my Dad, who was in his teens and early 20s in the 1970s. In the early days of my Bowie discovery, I sat down with my dad and played Hunky Dory. ‘Space Oddity’ is a great song, my dad said. When it came on, he cried, and I hugged him. It was a song that had made me cry, too, in the privacy of my room, but I wasn’t sure why. ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing we can do’. For my dad, it brought back a specific time and place, and was also a reminder of the time that had passed since then, I’d imagine.
In 2002, when I was in Year 12, the album Heathen came out – a predominantly melancholy, lamenting album. ‘For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing/and nothing has changed/everything has changed’. And in 2003 Reality was released – a little more upbeat, with some themes of getting older, change again, time, memory, art, conflict, love and still the fantastical. From ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon’:
‘Fall Dog is cruel and smart
Smart time breaks the heart
Fall Dog Bombs the moon
A devil in a marketplace
A devil in your bleeding face
Fall dog bombs the moon’
In 2004, David Bowie came to Australia on the Reality tour. My boyfriend at the time bought us very expensive tickets – we were in the twelfth row at the Brisbane concert. It was one of the best nights of my life. I remember feeling smug that I was one of the only people at the front who seemed to know the lyrics to both the old and new songs. Bowie looked incredible – blonde, fit, dressed modern and relaxed. When he sang Life on Mars and Five Years my heart beat so fast. In Be My Wife, I sang along, pointing at Bowie as I sang ‘please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife’. To my delight, Bowie and I locked eyes as I was pointing and singing – he pointed and leaned back, smiling broadly at me. My face burnt red, my stomach left me. I turned to my boyfriend and said ‘DID YOU SEE THAT?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘David Bowie looked at you.’
For all the joy of that night, Bowie and I have shared some dark times. Because, really, he spoke to a part of me that not a lot of people around me saw, or wanted to see – or, I wouldn’t let them see. Wouldn’t, y’no, ‘burden’ them. I’m sure my teenage problems aren’t any more special than anyone else’s, but at the time I felt alone, and often: alone, swallowed, at the end of the world. I have the greatest family and friends, there were no visible problems, no causes. My dad was sick, and that was hard, but it wasn’t that, the word ‘overwhelmed’ came into my mind a lot. Everything required so much effort. Being, living, making something of it all, knowing the things you can never change, knowing that when you’re happy that moment will end, etc. I was extra-sensitive and kinda shocked by reality. And Bowie was one of my saviours, a space blanket, an inspiration. He told me I could be creative and open and eccentric and do big things and that it would be okay if, on some level, this feeling remained.
And so I write.
There is one more major role Bowie has played so far in my life – one of connection. When I lived in Coffs Harbour I’d try and put on Bowie at a party, and be practically booed from the room. They didn’t want Bowie, or Pink Floyd, or the Doors, or even Elton John. My stupid old sad music, my ‘bring down’. Don’t get me wrong, I like to dance, too. I love it, actually. But just once, I wanted them to listen, and appreciate (and connect). My mates. Some did appreciate him in private, but there was this type of person you always had to become in a party context – and there is that in me – but some part always felt thwarted. I still feel sad when I think of some of those nights – On my nineteenth birthday I was desperately unhappy. Hardly anyone came to my birthday, I watched a video the next day of my drunk-on-Schnapps self watching a music DVD, despised what I saw, and over the next year I lost over 20 kilos becoming what I thought I should be.
But now, oh, Melbourne! I can play Bowie to my heart’s content. My friends like Bowie. They also like jazz, and musicals, and sad country music, and Nick Cave, and Fleetwood Mac, and then even that stuff you can dance to. About two years after I’d moved to Melbourne, I was spending the afternoon with one of my best friends at ACMI, sipping red wine, and we had a conversation about life, the universe and everything, then he went off to a movie and I went home to watch Rocky Horror and Stingray Sam. We texted each other all though our movies (pictures of round faces and corsets) and afterwards I asked G what he was up to. ‘Just walking around the city, looking at the stars’, he said. I invited him over to hang out, we’d been hanging out more and more lately and I was jittery and yet ecstatic about what was possibly growing. After all, he was the best person I knew. When he arrived, we watched my whole David Bowie DVD, both discs, and I thought – how wonderful it is to find someone who loves this like I do. At the end of the DVD, Bowie shot his Cupid arrow and our hands, so naturally, came together.