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Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie helped change my life

We can all point to people who have influenced our lives, starting with our families and friends, and extending outward in ever expanding circles as we take what we need to become who we need to become. This inevitably includes performers of various kinds, and for me, David Bowie, who died today, was very important.

Like anyone my age, I heard David Bowie’s early songs on the radio, and I’ll be totally honest: At first I didn’t take all that much notice. That started to change as I neared the end of high school and went off to university. My good friend Doug played his music for me and I began to appreciate it.

But the real change happened toward the end of my university years. I was coming out, and for the first time I found out that I didn’t have to pretend to be something or someone I wasn’t. And, if anyone knew how to reinvent himself, it was David Bowie.

Bowie’s many personas included pushing a lot of boundaries and transgressing established roles of gender and sexuality. In 1976, he told Playboy he was bisexual, which I was well aware of at the time. He later stated regret for saying it, and I now feel it was probably more of cultural thing, or counter-cultural, probably, rather than an identity.

But in the late 1970s/early 1980s, none of that mattered. He was a symbol of someone who pushed boundaries and refused to be constrained by them, and I admired that. Seeing someone so seemingly fearless to do what he wanted helped me to find the courage to live an authentic life, and what happened later with him didn’t matter: I’d made it through the hard times by then.

I remember sitting with my first boyfriend, listening to “’Heroes’” and singing along to the lyrics
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
Except when I got to “And you, you will be…” he’d stop me, "no I won’t!" he said with mock indignation. And we’d laugh. Sometimes he’d sing it over me, and we’d laugh. It was silly, utterly unimportant, but it was something we shared, and something that’s stayed with me for over three decades. Music can do that.

“We can beat them, just for one day.” To me, “them” meant every anti-gay person, because by then I’d already experienced anti-gay bigotry.

In 1981, I bought Changestwobowie when it was first released. As with Changesonebowie, it was the first time I’d owned some of the songs on the album. I remember sitting in my room in my parents’ house, after they were dead, and before we sold the house. University was over, I was all alone in a white, middle class, Republican town, and I knew no other gay people for hundreds of miles. And when things got too tough, I played the music from my last year at university, including this album, and thought of the good times I had, reminding me that I could have them again, feel free again, and not be all alone.

Side Two, Track one: “Sound and Vision”, these lyrics:
Blue, blue, electric blue
That's the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue
My bedroom was painted in an electric blue colour, it was where I spent most of my time “waiting for the gift of sound and vision” as I was “drifting into my solitude”. It was a very dark time in my life—among the worst—and I got through it in part because of the music I had, and David Bowie was a large part of that.

In the years that followed, I continued to buy and listen to Bowie’s work, including 2013’s The Next Day; I haven’t yet bought Blackstar, released only a few days ago, mainly because jazz isn’t really my thing.

This means that I didn’t love everything that Bowie recorded. 1985’s “Dancing in the Street” duet with Mick Jagger is a good example of that. I didn’t buy all his albums, or even most of them, but when I needed them most, they were there.

This post is written mostly in shock: “But, he just had his birthday!” I protested when Nigel told me the news, as if that somehow meant he couldn't have died. Had I known that he’d been fighting cancer, news of his death wouldn’t have hit me so hard. "He must've had a heart attack to die so suddenly," I said to Nigel, "because I haven't heard about him being sick." So, this post is a bit more raw than my personal posts usually are. I was working on something entirely different when the news broke, and put that aside. This post, then, is what it is, I guess, and I don't really care all that much what anyone else thinks.

I’m sorry that David Bowie’s died, and sorry he had to battle cancer. My sympathies are definitely with his family, because I’ve been in that same position. But his death also affects me personally because it drags up all the memories of a time when I was reinventing myself, some of them were good memories, others very painful. And, I also remember that David Bowie’s music was part of my personal soundtrack for that era, and he was one of a handful of artists who helped me through a very dark chapter in my life. I will always be grateful for that.

We can all point to people who have influenced our lives; if we’re lucky, even decades later we can still feel grateful for what they brought to our lives. And I am.

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