Growing up, the music I heard most often fell into two camps: Oldies from my parents and Top 40 from my sister. It was a time when commercials and television themes were original, oft-kitschy jingles — not “real” music. And so all music made between 1970 and the time I was six years old was completely off my radar.
(I still remember how strange it was, yet how inevitable it felt; how attention-getting it was, yet how sad it felt, first hearing Jimi Hendrix music in ads for the Pontiac Sunfire, and no end of classic rock over Burger King Whopper commercials. )
It would be years yet before my family got Internet access; years more before I heard my first mp3. If a certain kind of music wasn’t played on the radio, and wasn’t on one of my parents’ CDs, and wasn’t ever on the TV, it was essentially gone. Unheard and unhearable, unknown and unknowable, lost in a gulf of time unplumbed and unplumbable.
The library existed, of course, and was rather glorious, given the size of my town. If I’d asked one of the librarians, I’m sure they’d have helped me find Music Of The 1970s and introduced me to its various genres: the southern rock, the punk, the funk, the glam, the prog-rock.
But, for some reason, I believed what the rest of TV — and the rest of music — seemed to imply: the 1970s were made of disco. A single crop in a near-fallow field, and the earth had been salted and burned come ’79.
Perhaps the most terrible fact about human brains is that, if we already believe we know enough about something, we don’t seek out more knowledge. And nobody’s more sure they know enough about what’s worth knowing than an eighth-grader.
Even so, I did love learning, and I’d absorb whatever information was presented to me. In part because I liked learning and loved trivia, but also perhaps because it was an adaptive trait. Call it a defense mechanism against curdling small-town ennui: if media is before you, and if it’s endurable in the least, you glean whatever you can get from it. You alter your expectations. You cultivate patience. And if all else fails, you get anthropological: “Who the crap likes this, and why?!”
PBS was a great teacher of these virtues.
Slow and stately, conventionally uncool, but full of fascination when your mind was right, PBS was often the best thing on our broadcast-only television. (Though I constantly clamored for cable.) That wasn’t always hard to do, of course. But that also gave it a power: the things that were a little too unconventional for my parents’ tastes – too silly, too cheap, too weird – could generally get a pass if it were shown on PBS. It was perhaps our go-to channel for ambient TV — for the thing that would be on in the background while we all read books, did crossword puzzles, or fell into a Ken-Burns-induced coma. PBS could never be objectionable. PBS could never be cool. PBS could never cross the line.
And so it was, during a pledge drive in 1998, that PBS introduced me to David Bowie.
The documentary series had been produced in 1995. It was simply called “Rock & Roll.” From its very introduction — a red electric guitar flung, in slow-mo, into the air, where at its zenith it exploded and caught fire — it was immediately the coolest thing I’d seen on PBS, and possibly the coolest thing I’d seen on TV all year.
It proceeded chronologically, as documentaries tend to do, starting with episodes now mostly forgotten – roots rock, doo-wop, Motown, all the things my parents and I already listened to and enjoyed. Or, at least, endured. I was fascinated by the counterculture of the 60s: the emotional sincerity, the rising up against war and racism, the belief in the power of words. Okay, and the fact it annoyed my dad. So I was eager from the start to get to that episode – and ruing the disco-doused episode that would surely follow. But, with those virtues PBS had taught me — it might as well have stood for Patience! Be Serene! — I watched each episode in full.
The narration was soporific, but the interviews were interesting, the archival footage was fascinating — this was the first time I’d seen actual moving images of most of the people I’d been hearing for years — and the subject matter was undeniably awesome. It didn’t seem that common, yet, for popular media to analyze itself with the same depth and sincerity as it analyzed history or science or the works of other cultures. And, as a perpetual outsider, the documentary was doing what I felt like I did every day: studying coolness, studying pop culture, trying to figure out what it was and how it worked — even though that only distanced me even more.
And so, with a clunk and a whir, our trusty old VCR taped each episode, so I could watch them again. (Ah, the quaint old days when things were shown once and only once, and if you missed it, you had to wait for reruns.) I had no idea, back then, that Mr. Rogers had been instrumental in advocating for that liberty, and it would have felt nicely full-circle.
But, in time, there was another episode. One that was as far from Mr. Rogers as you could get.
I didn’t watch it as it aired, but instead another day — after school, I think, sitting much too close to the big, wood-encased living room TV. And each segment of it absolutely blew my know-everything eighth-grade mind.
It began with helicopter footage of Woodstock, thousands of people and thousands of tents, a technicolor throng, Arlo Guthrie playing in the background: the event that, in my mind, had been the crowning moment of counterculture, of weirdness, of acceptance, of freedom, of kindness, of all my fondest and most unattainable ideals. If I had been alive back then, surely those would have been my people! And they would have appreciated me, not just despite but for my feelings! Thus always the delusion of the adolescent: “My feelings are deep and significant, and everyone else is a sheep, and nobody understands me, and I should have been born in a different time!” The narration spoke of that culture’s hope to change the world with a philosophy of peace and love, and I felt some affirmation.
But as the narration spoke of the fading of those ideals, the technicolor faded into the stark black-and-white face of some stranger — who I’d soon learn was Lou Reed. From there, a quick montage of other strangers, still stranger: Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, David Bowie. I recognized Jim Morrison, but no one else at all. And they all seemed so different — different from anything covered before, and different from each other, united only by an apparent affinity for tight pants and a complete disregard for shirts. None of which I minded in the least.
The episode began with a profile of The Velvet Underground.
I stared, amazed, as Flower Power was completely and utterly stripped of its standing. That was no counterculture. That was no weirdness. That was no art and freedom. Peace and love were all well and good, as ideals go, but here was this mad droning poetry about grime and isolation and futility and raunch and everything the hippies wanted to hope away. Here was theatricality. Here was an effort to distort sound, and the world, and minds, into something Other. These people weren’t just strumming guitars and singing plaintive, rustic songs about how things should be and totally will be, if people just love each other enough. Here were voices singing sideways from the gutter, inside out from orgies, transmissions from the alien planes of drug trips and nightmares and Art. It wasn’t a six-string letter to the editor, it was a bizarre manifestation of some completely divergent headspace. It was not a persuasive essay. It sought to move you, but did not seek to change your mind. It did not care if you came along. It did not want you to hold its hand. It was just going to be there, and do that thing that it was doing, and operate by its own surrealist non-logic, and it did not care if you accepted it. It did not care if you wanted it. It did not need you.
The episode went on. The Doors. Iggy Pop. Early Alice Cooper, “this shiny, new, horrible monster that was really fun to watch,” a thing built out of everything low americana wanted and hated at once. Yes.
But still, weren’t some things beautiful, I thought? Not everything could be churning grunge. Was there any room left for wonder, for something resembling magic?
And then there came this segment and this man.
This thin, gaunt man, impeccable in tie and pocket square. His mismatched eyes gazing off to the ceiling, to the past, to space. His careful, near-purr of a voice speaking of isolation, and the wasteland of suburbia – the “desperation, the exasperation” of it all. And of how, looking on the unfurling music scene beyond his current scope, he and his wife realized there was “a job in there somewhere, and it was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it, and I was the man for it — or, rather, I was the androgyne for it.”
What a word, I thought! What an idea! That’s a thing? I like this thing!
And this music! I like this music!
And, moreover, I found myself liking this person. He was so thoughtful, so introspective, so insightful, so charming.
And then there were the next scenes of him as Ziggy Stardust – wild hair, bright clothing, makeup and jewelry and painted nails — a character, an alien, a fiction.
I watched this tape so many times that some of its lines still burn in my mind, like the lyrics of songs themselves:
“And if you’d asked me at the time what it was I was trying to do — simply no idea. All I knew, it was, um — and I sound like a parrot saying this, but it’s true — and this otherness. This other world, an alternative reality, one that I really wanted to embrace. I wanted anything but the place that I came from.”
I had only so many opportunities to embrace otherness at the time. Books and music and my own thoughts were my primary escapes, and sinking myself into learning. So, after watching this episode, I remember eagerly looking up information on Encarta 97 (before my parents came home.) I had always been enchanted by the grossly-pixelated videos, the few seconds of songs by select artists, and I was Again, this was before I had access to mp3s or the Internet at all. But there was a brief article on Bowie, and even a clip of “Changes” – from 2:51 to 3:14.
These tiny fragments were almost more tantalizing than if I had access to his full body of work. Truth be told, I never have listened to his full discography. To me, the fascination wasn’t just in his music, it was in the persona. The fiction of his character, the fiction of his stardom, fictions inside of fictions. I admired that ability to not just embrace theatre but to take it beyond the stage, to admit the unreality of stardom itself, to weave another world, not just for himself, but for anyone who wanted to come along.
Not that most of America did. As the episode said, while glam rock exploded in Britain, it got no traction in America, and Bowie himself got no regard until he replaced the makeup and dresses with suits. Alice Cooper had already switched from dresses to midnight-movie horror host costuming, and his own stage sets were full of blood and guillotines and monsters — but this was more acceptable than a man in a dress.
I thought, not at all for the first time, about what my mother told me of her own dress codes at my age. Girls wore skirts or dresses, end of story. They did not wear slacks. They certainly did not wear jeans. (As dad said, jeans were far from cool when he was young: they were what the poor farm kids wore.) I’d always wondered whether the generation after me might change its mind about what boys could wear — if they might go out in skirts or dresses as casually and meaninglessly as I went out in jeans.
I’d often used the word “tomboy” for myself, though it never quite seemed to fit. It seemed to have unavoidable sports connotations. You could be a tomboy if you played basketball or baseball. If, on the other hand, you didn’t even “run like a girl,” but rather more like a marionette — and one where half its joints were rusted tight, half the remaining pivoted on some unnatural axis, and half the strings were cut — you didn’t quite seem to be eligible. Perhaps because tomboys were supposed to be more boylike, and being a boy was about being strong and fast and physically capable. But that same benighted lack of coordination made performative femininity a hell of a lot harder, as well. My natural locomotion came straight from the Ministry of Silly Walks; heels were a recipe for disaster. Simply staying upright was exhausting: butt out, chest out, back somewhat arched, walking heel-to-toe, swaying the hips — ugh. Putting on makeup without a smear or smudge or streak — ugh. Doing anything more complex with my hair than brushing it, which itself was strenuous given its inexplicable tendency toward massive rats’-nest snarls — ugh. Shopping for shoes — ugh. Trying on clothes — ugh. Existing corporeally whatsoever — UGH.
There was a sense in which I thought I’d never be “feminine enough.” I didn’t like the right kinds of things, I didn’t wear the right kinds of things, I didn’t move the right kinds of ways, I didn’t watch the right kinds of shows, I didn’t care about the right kinds of concerns, and my caring and nurturing instincts only kicked in in the presence of animals. The only thing that kicked in around a crying baby was intense misophonia and the desire to kick it out a window. But there were more senses in which I didn’t care about that supposed insufficiency, because it just felt like an uninteresting subset of a broader fact: of course I might not be “feminine enough;” I wasn’t anything enough. On my best days, I saw myself as some sort of protohuman, a test case that somehow got mixed up and sent out with the actual production models. The engineers responsible – assuming they were doing their jobs at all – were probably just watching me as some sort of field experiment, and there was an office pool on whether I’d be self-sustaining, and how long I could make it at all. More often, I was less protohuman and more… sub-. Nothing special or unique or experimental, just a problem and a mistake — but one whose existence posed marginally fewer problems for others than its nonexistence. Inasmuch as I had any goal at all, it was to be as minimally noticeable as possible. And so I wore plain medium-blue or black or grey jeans, and plain solid-color t-shirts, and black shoes, and unstyled hair, and no makeup, and simply tried to be as uninteresting as possible. So much of “girly” fashion seemed designed to get attention — either to attract boys or to show up other women — or it was just being done for the sake of fun and art. I’d almost entirely given up on impressing anyone, male or female, and I didn’t feel entitled to fun or a worthy subject of art, so I really couldn’t compel myself to care. Besides, even if I did dare to flaunt my barely-extant personality somehow, it’s not as if any conceivable combination of clothing, hairstyling, or makeup could do the job.
And that was part of the fascination of David Bowie, for me: through his androgyny, calculated as it was, he was all the more compelling and captivating and intriguing. It was as far as you could get from “meh” or “neutral” or “whatever answer will satisfy you so you stop looking at me.” If there were a form where Ziggy Stardust had to check either Male or Female, I could only imagine him neatly drawing his own box and writing an alien hieroglyph beside it. Through his costuming, his persona, his stage sets, he created fictions — and by believing in his fiction, even for the length of a performance, the length of an album, the length of a few clips, someone might begin to believe in their own. To try to cultivate their own personality – or at least their persona – and to weave themselves a narrative, a satire, a pastiche. To be something they weren’t, and in doing so, be more of what they were — and to define that by their own measure, rather than anyone else’s expectations or ideals. I did wish I could do that. And, as I entered my high school years, got into theatre, and began to outwardly manifest some semblance of a personality now and again, I tried to live up to it. Most of my gear was still neutral; I still was introverted as they came. My accessories grew ever so slightly more distinctive: black trenchcoat, somewhat-platform stompyboots, somewhat-affected accessories like a pocketwatch and a wallet — both of which I carry to this day. But, once in a while, when the powers of Mountain Dew or cookies or Friday (or, gods help us, all of the above) compelled me, I might indeed bust out the makeup. But when I wore sparkly purple eyeshadow, or daubed on glitter body lotion, or made another bad attempt at lipstick, I wasn’t trying to look cute and sparkly, or girly and pretty. I was going for juxtaposition. I was going for weirdness. And, if only as a descriptor of my stylistic choices and not of my personal or interpersonal attitudes, I was going for androgyny. I was going for David Bowie.
Bowie’s out-of-character sexuality and gender identity are immaterial for the purposes of this blather, really — how he actually identified or lived, in public or private, has had no influence on the formative impressions I got, few and brief as they were. The inspiration I took from what I saw, well, it is what it is. But there was something about even his out-of-character behavior in the interviews — something about the movement of his hands, the careful styling yet stray strands of his hair, the softness of his speech and the enigmatic looks in his eyes. The vulnerability. If nothing else, it was about what wasn’t there: aggression, machismo, contempt, even certainty. He was not trying to project an attitude of “masculine enough.” He did not seem embarrassed by his erstwhile aesthetic. I’ve known people to be more embarrassed about having worn acid-wash jeans. He was just a person, an artist, thoughtful and somewhat distant and so terribly alone. I stood corrected and reminded myself: my caring and nurturing instincts activate only in the presence of animals and cute broken boys.
At heart, the greatest part of Bowie’s appeal, to me, was that he didn’t seem awkward or apologetic or stilted. He was apart somehow, distant, somewhat perplexed, and himself perplexing, but not closed-off, cynical, or brusque. He was open in the way that a maze is open.
Above all, he seemed at home in ambiguity and isolation. And that, in itself, was inspiring. It told me that, no, you don’t have to know who you are right now. You don’t have to have some ironclad sense of self. You don’t have to check all the boxes of life, or meet others’ criteria, or adhere to traditional roles. You can choose to perform, or not to perform, and to change your roles and personae however you want for however long works for you. Nothing you do or wear, write or say, act or make, will ever say anything clearly. Nothing will ever be truly intelligible to anyone else. Even when you’re as honest and straightforward as you can possibly be, something of your body may betray you, and even if you do precisely what you mean and nothing else, whoever’s observing may construct their own fiction using their own interpretations. Everything, even the most tedious stuff of life, is part of a story that we’re telling ourselves about the world and how it works. And sometimes, we really can’t change anything. Sometimes, the world’s not ready. Sometimes, we can’t even change ourselves. Sometimes, everything spirals out of control and the world falls down and you’re not even sure how to curate your own story anymore.
But maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to live in uncertainty, in ambiguity, in the liminal states. Maybe even then, even there – especially then, especially there – we are ourselves, and truly ourselves, and more than ourselves.
I will be king
You will be queen
Will drive them away
We can be heroes
Just for one day
We can be us
Just for one day.
I can remember
By the wall
And the guns
Shot above our heads
And we kissed
As though nothing could fall
And the shame
Was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them
Forever and ever
Then we could be heroes
Just for one day.