“In this age of grand illusion/You walked into my life/Out of my dreams” –David Bowie, “Word on a Wing”, “Station to Station”
On the morning of Monday, January 12th, I woke up in an Airbnb near Joshua Tree, Calif. Since my Mom and Dad had flown into L.A. to watch our two boys, my husband and I had managed to get away for our 11th wedding anniversary for a full 2 days and 3 nights to explore the national park and have some romantic times and whatnot. It had been years since we were alone together for more than a few hours and we were giddy with freedom.
I’d never been to Joshua Tree before and was completely taken with the stark, gorgeous landscape. There’s a melancholy feel to the purple windswept desert, made more pronounced by David Bowie’s latest album, “★” (“Blackstar” when said out loud), running through my head as we set off on long, cold hikes. The album had just been released on January 8th, DB’s 69th birthday, and our wedding anniversary. I remember the thrill it gave me to set our wedding date on a day when DB would no doubt be celebrating as well. Our first dance as husband and wife was to a gentle, lilting version of “Life on Mars” sung by the Brazilian singer/songwriter, Seu Jorge. When DB heard the cover of his iconic song he’s quoted as saying, “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.” Love within love within love.
On that Monday in Joshua Tree, when I discovered DB had died, I looked out of the window at the spindly shrubs and blowing sand. The mountains in the distance were violet and gray and the sky a colorless wash. There was blue snow on the peak of each mountain. There were birds wheeling on the horizon. Everything was very cold. I wandered around for a while trying to remember how to get dressed. I took my sunglasses in and out of their case several times trying to remember what they were for. I felt disoriented and foolish, choking back tears and feeling my chest tighten with terrible pain because someone I had never even met, died.
I often felt lonely and isolated as a child. I don’t really know why. I felt there was something weird or wrong about me, something I shouldn’t share with anyone. I couldn’t have put a name to it or pointed out any one thing, it was just a yucky feeling. It had a habit of sweeping over me without warning. Sometimes when I felt this way, I stole forbidden snacks, like Twinkies, and stuffed them in my mouth while hiding behind the pantry door. It was hardly original, but I didn’t know any better. When I discovered David Bowie at the age of 8, the loudest part of that bad feeling was silenced. I was 8 in 1988, so the DB I fell in love with was Jareth, the Goblin King from the movie “Labyrinth”. But I like to think that if I had found Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, or any other incarnation of David Bowie, I would have felt the same way.
When I saw DB for the first time I felt a physical shock of recognition. That thing, that person on the screen, that hypnotizing voice was somehow the place I’d always been trying to get to. The person I wanted to be and also to be with. The place I could go to in my mind and be home and safe. And happy. And free.
The Goblin King was a placeholder for me until I got older and could drive myself to the record store. A compilation album called “Changes” introduced me to the big hits and I loved them pretty hard. I played it over and over until every song was an old friend. I fell hopelessly in love with DB’s voice, which could sound so deep and full-throated or high and reedy, broad and boogie-woogie or close and intimate. Sometimes he murmured, sometimes he shrieked, but he was always singing right to me. My musical discovery wasn’t linear, but eventually from “Changes” I went on to the old stuff, “Ziggy” and “Hunky Dory” and “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”.
All through my life, the more I heard, the greedier I got. I did “Lodger” and “Low”. I did “Station to Station” and “Heroes” and “Young Americans” and “Let’s Dance”. I did “Scary Monsters” and “Outside”. I did “Earthling”. When I went away to college, my brother burned “Bowie at the Beeb” onto 3 CDs to keep me company. When I was young, more albums led to more pictures. This was all mostly pre-internet, so my cache was limited, but I culled enough resources to understand. We were soulmates.
Bowie taught me that the chaos I felt inside was okay. That it was good and right to keep looking for little pieces of yourself, to try things on and discard them. His voice was an antidote to my growing pains, of which there were many. He was always there. DB showed me that when you look in the mirror and you don’t like what you see, you’re completely free to change it. You could be a boy or a girl, or like boys or girls. You could be a bizarre half of something backwards. An elegant dandy. An alien.
This was so comforting to me that during my formative years whenever I was lonely or sad, I would put on DB and just feel better. Thinking of him or a song fragment would give me the bravery I needed to face a scary situation. Knowing he was out there, what I thought of as a part of me, this BETTER, BEST part of me, made me safe. OK. Inspired. Happy. Filled with joy. I loved thinking of his quick smile and saucy sideways glances. I loved picturing him laughing at some clever quip or an old hilarious memory shared with a close friend.
And I don’t mean to imply that our relationship was just me sitting around filled with reverent longing. Mostly, me and DB had crazy fun. I just loved him with all my heart. He was my hero.
I especially leaned on DB after my children were born. When I was a new mom I felt lost. I knew I wasn’t who I used to be, but I couldn’t locate who it was exactly I was supposed to have become. Everyone seemed to want something from me, but my resources were depleted. DB helped recharge my batteries. He reminded me that it was ok to flounder. To fuck up and bum around. He gave me happiness and light when I felt low. We had daily dance parties; me, my babies, and Bowie. When he was just over a year old, my youngest son said his favorite song was “Under Pressure.”
I read DB biographies and went back to the beginning of his discography to try and listen to every bit, start to present. I found terrible albums like “Tonight” and rediscovered forgotten times, like when DB teamed up with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails for a tour. I often fell asleep watching old clips of him performing on YouTube, feeling a tiny, connecting thread between us, covering all those miles, light and strong. I thought of that thread as unbreakable.
And now he’s gone.
I knew he would probably die during my lifetime. He’s quite a bit older than me, and I knew his health wasn’t great. I tried to prepare myself for this eventuality. And I knew I’d be sad. But then the albums started coming again. We got “The Next Day” and of course, “★”. And there were videos and he looked fine! Everything seemed fine. I thought we had years still.
But we didn’t.
I didn’t expect to feel like this. I didn’t expect it to actually, physically hurt. Or that I would feel sick and terrified. And I keep asking myself the same question:
Am I grown up enough to take on the rest of this life without DB?
I didn’t really know him. I don’t know the sound of his keys jingling in the door. I don’t know what he liked for breakfast. I don’t know how his face changed when he was suddenly tired of the conversation. Or the smell of the crease of his neck underneath his jacket collar.
I feel angry. Cancer has cheated me out of more albums. More times of discovering the intimate quiver of his breathy baritone brushing against my ear drums, my fingers feverishly pressing my headphones as tightly to my ears as possible to block out everything but the connection between us.
I hate thinking of him dying. I hear he died at home. I try not to, but lying in bed at night, I can’t help but work up this image of him slipping away, eyelids fluttering over his mismatched eyes, fingers pleating and wrinkling the bedsheets. As vitals slow, it must feel like falling a bit, falling nestled in a secret cocoon of half-remembered conversations and sounds, fluttering scraps of life.
Last year I got a tattoo I’ve been wanting for a long time. It’s the image of DB from the cover of “Diamond Dogs”. He’s stretched out against the entire upper part of the inside of my right arm. His dog legs reach past my elbow and his flat, sexual stare peeks up around my bicep. Two skeletal arms reach up into my armpit. It’s an arresting and beautiful image. When I look at it I remember it’s okay to have the storm inside.
It used to be fun to trade Bowie stories with people when they would spot my tattoo and ask. Now, everywhere I go his voice is there. He’s playing at every sidewalk cafe, in every restaurant, in every store. Even at stupid Target. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to talk about it. Most people are kind, but some aren’t. I don’t want have that conversation anymore where you explain how you’re a bigger fan than me or jokingly ask if I’ll make it through the day.
For now, I’ll squeeze my arm against my chest and try to keep reality where I can see it. DB didn’t know me. And I didn’t know him. A wife has lost her husband, a son and a daughter, their father. They know the real loss. They are the ones who deserve the condolences. What I know and what I need is what lives in my mind and heart. All the time I thought I was drawing on DB for strength, it was really only from myself. It was really just me.
David Bowie, I can still reach out and find you there. Your voice and pictures and movies. You gave so much to us all. I can’t really lay claim to any of it. It’s all flung out in space covering us all, inspiring us all.
Very recently, scientists have witnessed the most luminous supernova that has ever been recorded. NASA tells us that a, “…supernova occurs at the end of a single star’s lifetime. As the star runs out of nuclear fuel, some of its mass flows into its core. Eventually, the core is so heavy that it cannot withstand its own gravitational force. The core collapses, which results in the giant explosion…” This supernova is said to be producing 570 billion times more light than the sun at its peak. It is the brightest thing humans have ever seen. It is the most light ever.
When things are really bad or really good, I’ll still close my eyes and step into your arms, Goblin King. As you press your powdered cheek against mine, the sound of my ball gown rustling will quiet my quickened breath. Your voice will slow my heart beat. We’ll sway chastely to the slow rhythm of my childhood longing. You’ll live there forever for me and nothing can ever take that away.
As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you
Lyrics from “Where are we Now?” off of “The Next Day”
Thin White Duke Image courtesy of Reddit
Bowie Desert Image courtesy of Icons on Pinterest
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