And now my brother lays upon the rocks; he could be dead, he could be not, he could be you.
David Bowie is dead at 69. Or maybe that’s David Jones. Maybe Bowie, the man named after a knife, is still with us. Or maybe that’s Ziggy Stardust. No, I remember him dying. Who’s the heir to the Thin White Dukedom?
Whatever he called himself, the man/child/androgyn who created the bulk of work copyrighted to David Bowie has always been a go-to for me. For many of us. Any time the world at large, the great heaving masses, seemed to get too aggressively normal, Bowie was there. When the gulf between me and every other living being on the planet became (in the worlds of one Bowie disciple) an ancient ocean wide, Bowie was there. A creature from another world. From a happy land where only children live. An Ambassador of Different. One living example to show that life was more than a good education and savings accounts and a couple beers on a Friday. An example to prove that there exists Different.
I doubt there’s anyone who came to Bowie in a real, meaningful way – as we came to our disposable pop stars in my day, treating them as messiahs – who doesn’t know what I mean by Different. “Why do you always have to be different from everyone?” I had a (particularly obnoxious) girlfriend say to me (repeatedly.) But you know. Different isn’t a choice. It’s not volition. Different is felt. Different is already there, within you, like stardust. You don’t choose it and it doesn’t choose you. It’s always been there. It’s what’s best and oldest in you. Different isn’t put on and off.
Different for me was using “Oh! You Pretty Things” as the theme song for thrift store shopping with a (far less obnoxious) girlfriend, me in my polyester woman’s blouse and she in her plaid pants, knowing fully well we were driving our mamas and papas insane. Different for me was singing “The Prettiest Star” to that same girlfriend’s Maltese poodle as it lolled its tongue out at me, not comprehending but not minding the attention, either. Different for me was blazing through my 20s with my good friend so we could live up to having “The Bewlay Brothers” as our anthem.
Bowie was the Ambassador of Different. He made Different . . . I wanted to say “respectable.” That’s not the right word. He certainly didn’t do that and damn good thing he didn’t. Respectable is the opposite of Different. But Bowie made Different seem as if it wasn’t just adolescent self-importance. Or, maybe, he made it seem that if it was just adolescent self-importance, then that was good. It was something to be aimed at.
And so he carved out a space for us, we denizens of Different, who by sheer accident of birth, seemed as if we were denied citizenship in the world our families and classmates and lovers belonged to. He started early trying to create our nation, our happy land where you’re not allowed, Mr. Grown-up. But that wasn’t enough. The planet was already too un-Different, so we followed him space, ready to colonize other worlds in the name of Different. And yet, as we all learn, Different, without some kind of Same to define itself against, quickly turns to mush. Meaningless. Major Tom becomes a junkie.
So let’s dance instead. My first exposure to David Bowie was Labyrinth. 10 years old. Now, I was far too drool-y over a young Jennifer Connelly to pay him much notice, but I remember the . . . difference. That elegant, asexual Goblin King (and those tights!) Maybe it wasn’t that Different that I’m talking about and maybe it was. That’s for the years to come – our first years without a David Bowie – to decide. Maybe the energy it takes to sustain Different into middle age doesn’t make economic sense. Maybe it’s just not worth it. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Different never made economic sense. It wasn’t meant to. Economic sense was for the other people, the ones who had ambitions of becoming teachers and dental hygienists and stock brokers. The ones who had a path. For those of us who heard early the call of Different, why would we be worrying about how much energy it takes to sustain? Different was a calling. A vocation. But when even our ambassador was seen more in evening wear on red carpets than on stage in lightning bolt make-up, how sustainable was it?
Sure, I still sing “Kooks” to my 14-month-old daughter. And I mean it. But do I do much else? Would my younger, Different self be proud of me? Or at least understand why compromises needed to be made? I guess what I’m asking is, have I lived up to the
promise I made to myself while David Bowie was playing in in my ears and my brain? Whether Bowie lived up to his own promises is between him and his critics. But what about us, now orphaned, citizens of Different? Have we? Have we lived up to
the promises we made ourselves when we looked in the mirror and expected to see David Bowie? It’s a damn shame it took his death to remind us that things used to be different. That things used to be Different. But they did. Before we got old. Before we consigned our younger, Ziggy-imbibing selves in the back of the closet with our flashy polyester shirts.
And is it worth it? To even try to sustain Different in a world of mortgages and fitness classes and scented candles? I suspect David Bowie knows the answer, but he was never going to tell us.