One Could Almost Call It An Altar
It’s never too late to worship at the temple of Bowie
I began today listening to music I loved when I was 15. Wait: Not just loved. Obsessed over. Scrutinized for hidden meaning. Repeated like a conjuring spell. Though I’m not sure exactly what I was trying to conjure. Presumably the rock gods singing and strumming and synthesizing their heaven-sent sounds. Okay, that’s precisely what I was trying to do. As if I concentrated hard enough, if I painstakingly wrote out every lyric, if I played every album on endless repeat, I would be rewarded for my loyalty with a sudden flash and the tang of ozone as my idols were transported to a blue bedroom in a brick house in a town so small, the single traffic light was more pretense than necessity.
More worryingly, I was trying to transform myself into the objects of my affection. Almost all of whom were male. I was most certainly in love with them. But really, I wanted to be them. And these desperate, fervent prayers for pop transubstantiation were as frequent and mundane to me as homework or housework.
Here’s a representative example from my diary at the time:
We did an awesome exercise in drama class — we became someone else. We were supposed to choose people we knew. I didn’t. I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to be: Except Morrissey.
Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (That’s French for “I enjoy humiliating myself on the Internet.”) While I love Moz only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my predilection for wanting to become my heroes hasn’t waned. As I teeter in my cherry-red platform creepers at the edge of middle age, my lightning-bolt necklace flashing in the footlights, I can semi-confidently declare 2013 My Year of Living Bowie.
I first discovered Bowie in 1987. This was more than a bit unfortunate. 1987 was not a good year to discover Bowie. It was the year of Never Let Me Down, an album described by Rolling Stone as “an odd, freewheeling pastiche of elements from all the previous Bowies … It may well be the noisiest, sloppiest Bowie album ever.” Oh, and I had it on cassette tape. There was no dashing home from the five-and-dime with a purloined vinyl copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, throwing myself onto an orange shag carpet, and having my rurally enslaved mind blown barndoor-open by the alien wisdom of an alligator, a space invader, a mama-papa coming for me.
That’s the standard Bowie Fan Creation Myth. But it wasn’t mine. Because in 1987, I was so. Not. Cool. I was a long, long way from cool. I was several time zones on the other side of the international date line of cool. If you would like proof, I submit my favorite album from roughly the same time period: Breathe’s All That Jazz. If you don’t remember Breathe, good for you. You were probably listening to the Smiths when they still existed. What can I say? Better a late bloomer than no bloom at all.
So all I knew of Bowie was arguably his worst album and my favorite song from it, “Glass Spider,” arguably the worst song. It begins as a spoken-word piece, with Bowie, in that high-drama halting baritone of his, intoning “Up until one century ago, there lived in the Zi Duang province of an eastern country, a glass-like spider.” I was hypnotized. It was just so … weird. And maybe that nascent weirdophilia made me not so very much unlike every mid-seventies starchild who snuck out of a suburban house, leaving behind a trail of glitter and the unmistakable buttered-popcorn-and-baby-powder musk of teenage angst.
I’ve taken two shuddering steps towards Bowie and one step back all my life, until I find myself here and now, winded but making fair time, flipping over a used LP of Diamond Dogs in a room whose centerpiece is one of my most prized possessions — an original, Brian Duffy-autographed contact sheet of the Scary Monsters album cover shoot, circa 1980.
You might call me a poser. That’s fine. That’s fair. Consider this: Keith Richards once said Bowie was “all pose.” He meant it as an insult, but, as the pope once said, fuck that noise.* Bowie internalized every bit of popular (and unpopular) culture he loved and reassembled it into the kind of strangeness that only works because it’s somehow familiar to the most primal recesses of our reptile brains. It’s not art in repose. It’s art, re-posed. For God’s sake, the man was a mime. He was a poser in the purest sense. He could out-pose Michelangelo’s David. And by all accounts wielding a much, much larger, er, slingshot.
*The pope never said this. Well, maybe the last pope did.
This January 8th, I postponed a flight back to California and spent a glorious Bowiemas in London. Upon waking that morn, some combination of glam baby Jesus and drag Santa Claus bestowed upon us glad tidings of great joy: a brand-new Bowie song, “Where Are We Now?” Where was I then? Standing under the Ziggy Stardust plaque on Heddon Street and feeling the flutter of fangirl euphoria, that’s where. Some forty years late, but didn’t Bowie himself say “take your time?” (I mean, of course, after telling us that time “flexes like a whore” and “falls wanking to the floor.” Still, you get the idea.)
Then followed Tilda Bowie & David Swinton in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” Then the release of The Next Day. Then the V&A’s David Bowie Is… exhibition — which I flew back to London last month to, well not “see,” exactly, so much as submerge myself in. And, most recently, the Bowie-conceived, YouTube-banned, batshit-crazy video for that album’s title track, featuring Marion Cotillard stigmata-ing with such gusto that she nearly drowns a underground den of sex-crazed priests, gilt-nippled unholy mothers, and — naturally — Gary Oldman with more blood than issued forth from the elevator of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s teaser trailer for The Shining.
You know who’s loving every minute of this madness? Every single second of 2013, 2013owie, The Year 66 A.B.? This poser right here. Because when things get weird, I get giddy. And nobody does weird like Bowie. Nobody does resplendent, nobody does threadbare, nobody does scary, nobody does nostalgic, nobody does bestial, nobody does synthetic, nobody does anything quite like Bowie.
Pray he never stops.