Sunday, January 17, 2016

Six Degrees of David Bowie

David Bowie fans around the world have shown their love for the multi-talented musician, actor, writer and producer since his death last week of cancer at age 69. While I regret having never seen him perform live (except on TV), and like millions of others, I'm surprised by my emotional reaction to his passing, I want to consider his effect on my life in so many ways.

Your face is a mess
At thirteen, I had few friends. One of them, Mike, who lived a few blocks from me in my medium-small Ohio home town, introduced me to a lot of music my family never owned, like glam rockers Alice Cooper, KISS and David Bowie. I remember being transfixed by the feminine canine imagery of Bowie on the cover of the album Diamond Dogs. I'd already become a fan of science fiction, and finding music that matched my dark fantasy world was thrilling.

Mixed with that was an unspoken queer sensibility with my friend. Outcasts, not popular, we did however share a kinship with other more 'macho' schoolmates through music. An arena concert T-shirt the next day was the ultimate status symbol.

And while Bowie's sexuality can be debated, and was at least fluid, his bold costumes and personae declared the 'other,' an alien transgender beauty I'd never seen before. I was both attracted and frightened by such a clearly queer representation, and struggled to hide my inner flamboyant dreams with 'being normal' while knowing I was gay. 

That's a common feeling for many other gay men of the time, decades before casually coming out on social media became so commonplace. Equally common is the sense of betrayal at his abandonment of a queer identity.

Never gonna fall for...
And while other 'glam' rockers became Republican hypocrites, Bowie at that time remained apolitical, letting his work speak for itself. He transformed multiple times, presciently adapting to the horrid 1980s conservatism by becoming a suit-wearing dashing style icon after retiring his gender-queer costumes.

Music writer Barry Walters discusses Bowie's impact of sexuality and gender expression for Billboard. "Bowie led the way in contextualizing pop through LGBT identity," he writes."You can bet his sartorial influence on the cross-dressing New York Dolls and sponsorship of both Mott the Hoople (he wrote and produced "All the Young Dudes") and Iggy Pop similarly paved a confrontational path for what became punk. And when he went electronic in the late '70s, he begat Gary Numan, The Human League and the New Romantic club scene of Culture Club and Duran Duran. Suddenly, England's New Wave was awash with baby Bowies both male (Spandau Ballet) and female (Eurythmics' Annie Lennox) that filled the first playlists of MTV. Even disco's Grace Jones fully ­actualized her ­freakiness when she covered the Bowie/Pop tune "Nightclubbing," which set a stage for today's art-pop transgressions of Lady Gaga and Janelle MonĂ¡e."

Very good friends of mine  
By high school, attending rock concerts became regular but still special occasions. That's a part of my life I'll be fictionalizing in my next novel.

But even those live concerts pale in comparison to the shocking beauty of the 1979 broadcast of Saturday Night Live that featured Bowie as the musical guest. With the now iconic looks thrown together with the help of his new friends Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi, three songs were performed, "TVC15," "Boys Keep Swinging" and "The Man Who Sold the World." Arias tells Paper Magazine how it all happened.

SNL alum Fred Armisted returned to the show to intro the tribute:

"When I was in high school and living in Long Island, I stayed up to see David Bowie play on Saturday Night Live," he said. "And watching him was, for me, a life-changing experience. He had these back-up singers that were like choir singers from the future, and a toy poodle with a TV monitor in his mouth."

The three performances have popped up on YouTube and elsewhere, then been deleted by NBC for copyright reasons. But this week, SNL rebroadcast one of the visually stunning performances, and has all three online.

Transition... transition..
Back when I was a dancer-turned-performance artist (a thankfully brief period of my career), I had the honor of opening for Joey Arias in the early 1980s at the first tiny incarnation of The Knitting Factory. Only a few people attended for my act, and Arias performed a shortened version of his trademark Billie Holiday show for dozens of his fans.

Jump ahead a few decades. I had the honor of interviewing composer-singer Kristian Hoffman and Arias before their 2013 concert at San Francisco's Feinstein's at the Nikko cabaret show that included several Klaus Nomi songs. 

Arias and Nomi had been close friends and performed together, and Hoffman, who also performed with Lance Loud and The Mumps. Hoffman gets (mostly unnoticed) credit for creating Klaus Nomi's band, and composed many of Nomi's now-iconic songs.

Here's that interview in the Bay Area Reporter.

Nomi, as a Halloween costume, gets a little tribute in my fifth novel Message of Love. Reid (as the Gorton's Fisherman) and Everett (as his catch of the day, a merman) attend a gay bar's holiday party, and their very gay pal Gerard wears a handmade Klaus Nomi outfit, in Chapter 34. It's October 1982, and the Nomi costume serves as a haunting foreshadow of an as-yet unnamed disease (Nomi would die of AIDS a year later).

Scanning life through the picture window
Unfortunately, despite having referenced many pop songs of the time (including the Pretenders hit which I used for the book's title), I failed to include any Bowie songs. Perhaps I was too concerned to add songs that overshadowed the story, like lame TV montages that are only compelling when a more dramatic song is used.

Bruce Springsteen, who was and is popular in the working class cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, was also omitted, despite my affection for his music. 

Yet he and Bowie had a connection going back to 1974, as recounted in this article and audio clip, along with funny-sexy photos of a shirtless Springsteen meeting Bowie backstage at Max's Kansas City.

Only days ago, Springsteen and his band performed a rousing version of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" at his Pittsburgh concert (where my character Everett has family in my previous novel, Every Time I Think of You, and in the sequel, the boys have a few holiday weekends together). Here's another angle of that performance.

Is it any wonder?... Fame, fame, fame, fame.
Oh, and here's a picture of Paul Young, Iggy Pop and Rick James with Bowie. It's kind of random, but my connection here is that I worked as a production assistant on music videos with my brother, and one of them was for a Rick James video (the one where he has a ten-foot-long guitar; the song's completely forgettable. I worked the smoke machine while wearing a gas mask, while James smoked pot in his dressing room.)

And while we're on the music videos angle, my brother's working on a documentary about another band, the mostly forgotten Columbus-based Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires, which had a bit of Bowie influence as well. (Keep up with that project on Twitter.)
New York's a go-go  and everything tastes right
And through my 1980s-early '90s New York City life, Bowie was often spotted, seen, and mentioned as having 'just left the building' at various nightclubs, parties and art events. 

Before living in NYC, a college visit, thanks to a very creative pal Michael, had me staying in a SoHo loft with he and another college pal whose friend had become David Bowie's assistant (I never met her or Bowie). 

During that visit, we got toe see the Nomi-esque performance group PoPo and the Gogos perform at some underground loft space at 3AM. We also hung out with Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst of Dance Noise, and my future vision of Manhattan life seemed groovy and excited.

The point is, we all have connections to Bowie, be they personal, artistic and even stellar or spiritual. He was one of those artists who completely changed art and music.

Never look back, 
walk tall, act fine
So, how will he continue to change our lives? For one thing, Bowie's passing, as well as a surprising number of other artists and celebrities in the past few weeks, has me thinking about death. What will be my legacy, and how can I preserve my art, including any unfinished projects? When you approach a certain age, you dwell on such serious topics.

Bowie was more than a rock star, but also a man of letters. I recently posted on my author page on Facebook a link to Bowie's 100 favorite books. In a re-do of the famous 'Proust Questionaire, published in Vanity Fair, Bowie's Q&A includes this:

Q: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
David Bowie: Reading.

Along with filling stadiums of music fans, he admired the other arts, was an Internet-aware tech fan. He respected the past, saw, predicted and shaped the future.

Though nothing, will keep us together

 Guardian writers Joanna Walters and Edward Hellmore tell of Bowie's last year and a half of creative bursts, how Blackstar was swiftly produced, despite the singer's ill health.
Producer Robert Fox, who worked with him on the play Lazarus, said Bowie never complained.
“The work was great and working with him was wonderful but it wasn’t great that he wasn’t well. It was not good at all. Some days he just wasn’t able to be around, but whenever he could be, it [his cancer] didn’t interfere with his contribution. It was just horrible for him, rather than difficult for us.”
Fox believed the work was not specifically coloured by Bowie’s sense of his own mortality. “The struggle with mortality goes on whether or not you’re unwell. People write about that stuff even when they’re in perfectly good health,” he said. 
Jason Evangelho writes specifically about Bowie's song "Lazarus," and a haunting scenes in the video, of Bowie frantically scribbling away, trying to find a moment of inspiration in his last days.
"Bowie sits at a desk, frustrated and seemingly impatient to find the right words to jot down in the notebook in front of him. Suddenly a brief smile lights up his face and he begins enthusiastically scrawling on the pad in front of him.

"A few seconds later, it’s as if Bowie is overwhelmed. He’s frantically writing now, face wrinkled in concentration, writing so furiously that his hand spills off the page and down the front of his desk.
To me, it’s screaming that Bowie had so much left to say. To contribute. To create. But time has run out."
So, it's back to work, now, not later. 
Back to work, because time is running out. 
The stars look very different today.


  1. Brilliant words. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. The other person in the photo with Rick James and Iggy Pop is Paul Young, who was a musician/singer in his own right, and very popular in England in the 80'- 90's.