I Didn't Love David Bowie, But I Love What He Taught Me

There was more to his message than just rock 'n' roll

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When I woke up this morning to the news that David Bowie was dead, I got sad in a way that took me aback. Hang around long enough, and celebrity deaths—even rock and roll deaths—don't surprise as they once did, with reminders of your mortality; rather, they confirm what you already know, which is that the world you love is disappearing all around you, giving way to a terra incognita informed first by memory and then oblivion. The artists who, in life, once signified that you were young now warn you that you are getting old, and you had better prepare for the revelations still to come.

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Bowie's death is different, because Bowie was different—because his death doesn't seem any more part of the natural order of things than his life did. It isn't simply that he had declined to take part in the rock & roll oldies show favored by his once-pioneering contemporaries; it isn't simply that, sick and nearly 70, he was still creating, and had released another album, Blackstar, just last week. It is that his legacy is still alive, and still part of the fractious debate over gender and sexuality that persists to this day.

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I didn't love David Bowie. Sure, I loved a lot of his songs, like everybody else, and, like everybody else, I had an incarnation of Bowie that I loved best—in my case, the solemn "art-rock" Bowie of the late Seventies. But I knew, even as I enjoyed and revered his music, that I didn't love him the way some people did, and that he was theirs, not mine. And so, when I heard that he was dead, it was them I thought of, and knew I hadn't loved him enough.

Indeed, I have hardly thought of David Bowie at all, this morning and afternoon. I have, however, thought of the classmate who first told me about Bowie, when I was in ninth grade. I have thought of the guys who were really "into Bowie" in high school, and my lasting image of them getting out of their cars in the parking lot, with their shag haircuts and their high-heeled shoes, the dope smoke and the jagged opera of a Ziggy Stardust eight-track pouring from the windows. I have thought of the writer who understood Bowie better than anyone else, and would call me, when she was stymied or lonely or bored, and engage me in Talmudic discussions on what Bowie was really saying in the great outro to "Rebel, Rebel."

I think of them because they not only loved Bowie more than I ever did; they earned the right to love him. The classmate who told me about Bowie in ninth grade had to leave school for a while in twelfth, because he threw dollars bills around in the cafeteria, "just to see what people would do," and caused a riot. The guys who were really "into Bowie" turned out to be the first gay people I ever knew, and died, all three of them, from AIDS, in the Eighties and the Nineties. The writer who could quote every single line from every single one of Bowie's Seventies singles and make them scan like Yeats has been silenced by mental illness, and the world is a lesser place for the absence of her voice. They were calamity's children, as Bowie once sang, all of them, and they were all brave and kind in ways to which I can only aspire.

And this brings me to the question that I've asked myself over and over since hearing yesterday's bad news—the question of Bowie and manhood. I was a boy when I first heard of David Bowie but also not much of a man, because I had just completed a career as an elementary school bully, taking out my rage about my own vulnerabilities on the one kid who was even more vulnerable than I was. I was a marginal-jock/maximal pothead when I used to watch the guys who were into Bowie wobbling around on their high-heeled shoes but I didn't often get stoned with them, because everybody who knew who they were had suspicions about what they were, and I wasn't ready to risk their friendship. I was experiencing the first flush of career success when I met the writer who engaged me in "Rebel, Rebel" colloquies, and I understand now that she gave me The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 because she knew I could be something of a posturing asshole—because she thought that my lack of line-and-verse familiarity with the corpus of Bowie's work represented a deficiency not just in my education but in my character.

I love many of the rock and rollers next up on altar of actuarial sacrifice more than I ever loved David Bowie. But of all of them—the Stones; Zeppelin; Paul; Neil Young; and on and on—only Bob Dylan ever taught me as much about being a man as Bowie did…taught me to think of manhood in terms of its vast range of possibility. Sure, "Rebel, Rebel" is built around of the great riffs ever employed in modern music, an earworm inexhaustible and ineradicable. But what makes it one of the ten-or-so greatest of all rock songs is the simple fact that it's not just a song but, like of all of Bowie's music, an invitation—to love the unloved and to value the undervalued, both in others and oneself.  He's gone now. So are many of those who loved and needed and laid claim to him. But the invitation is still extended, and I find myself hoping, even at this relatively late date, that I am worthy of it.

From US Esquire