So we learned today that David Bowie left us for some transcendental plane. Whether you believe in heaven or not, it’s comforting for me to think that the creative consciousness of this remarkable spirit has burst out into the cosmos and is somehow lingering among us.
Along with all the other fine tributes from folks far more talented than I – Neil Gaiman and Peter Gabriel among them – I have to step in to offer my own small account of how this artist affected me.
I came into my Bowie knowledge when I was small with the release of “Space Oddity, then again through of his lovely Christmas duet of “The Little Drummer Boy” with, of all people, Bing Crosby. He returned to my consciousness again in the early 1980s as he burst back onto the scene via MTV. I was intrigued – particularly by the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video in which he played both a dorky suitor and Screamin’ Lord Byron, the ultra-freaky performance artist he was taking his date to see.
A little research among the bins at Wonderland Records up the road from my house in Wilmington, Delaware’s Pike Creek Valley revealed a deep catalog of pure awesomeness. Since that point, I’ve been a fan of his prolific, groundbreaking and wide-ranging output.
As the weird kid cloaked not in Duran-Duran drag, but nondescript rugby shirts, it was easy to camouflage myself as “ordinary.” My close friends, however, knew the breadth of my oddness, and I appreciated that the David Bowie of “Let’s Dance” had at one time been the space rocker Ziggy Stardust. I gave me a bit of hope that it was possible for the weird kid I felt like could exist in a shell that, to the outside world, seemed acceptable.
When it came time for me to begin crafting an antagonist for my novel Immaculate Deception, I had in mind someone who, as a second-in-command for a large, powerful religious organization, wouldn’t necessarily come off right away as bad. I was looking more for severely handsome, urbane, menacing and just a bit off-putting. My mind immediately lit upon Bowie as a template.
If you read between the lines in the novel, it’s pretty easy to pick up that the character was based on the Thin White Duke.
The image changed again, this time that of a man of indeterminate age wearing what Jon imagined was a very expensive white suit. He was malevolently good looking, all angles with his high cheekbones and sharp jaw. Even his hair, blond streaked with gray, seemed mean, sweeping back as it did from an immaculate widow’s peak.
And I’m not alone. Gaiman has been quoted as saying that he demanded that the illustrators of his graphic novel The Sandman make the character of Lucifer hew as closely to Bowie as possible. It’s hard not to be inspired by someone whose music broke so many boundaries and – let’s face it – was so talented, stylish and handsome that he seemed like someone who could only truly come from our imaginations.
But what Bowie also suggested to me is an artist with a sense of humor – someone who knows that some will take him all too seriously and some will see his over-the-top personas as a gag. OK, maybe not a gag, but a tool he uses to express all the things that go on inside an artist’s head that can’t really be funneled into the same places. Instead, they have to be divvied out among concept albums that represent entirely different characters.
The Flight of the Conchords seemed to understand this too, perfectly parodying/paying tribute to all things Bowie in this excellent bit from their TV show of the same name. Somehow I think that somewhere, Bowie himself might have appreciated this.
The same can be said for writers. We can’t put all the things swimming into our imaginations in one place, so some goes into a novel, other bits into a short story. They might be interconnected – the way Bowie embodied all his characters at once but was simultaneously separate from them – but otherwise they can sometimes seem all over the place. The only consistence is the artist and his or her desire to get all this stuff out there.
So thank you, Mr. Bowie, Maj. Tom, Alladin Sane, Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Screamin’ Lord Byron and all the other characters you created and inhabited. The world is better for your art, and better for those you inspired to make art of our own.