The Bowie vigil in Brixton on Monday night. Photo by Jake Lewis
I'm in a gay club in Nottingham. It's the noughties. I'm 14. Physically I'm a boy but one adorned with a tight blue top borrowed (stolen) from a girl at school, lashings of black eyeliner, and my hair in three-inch spikes. I've taken our dog's collar and chain as makeshift jewelry and ripped a hole in the left knee of my jeans for asymmetry. I don't want to look like a boy or a girl.
A man tells me I look very "glam rock." What the fuck is glam rock? I don't make the connection, then, between the strange man from Labyrinth and my own gender expression, decades later, but the truth is David Bowie opened up new ways of being for little shits like me, who came after him, whether we realize it or not. Every misfit in the world owes him.
I don't usually cry when someone famous dies, but Bowie is different. He was one of us. Like no one I'd ever met and yet, on some level, like every weirdo I've ever known. He wasn't just a freak, though. He was the freak.
We've all had those conversations, usually stoned, where we imagine what it will be like when the Queen or some other global name dies. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that Bowie would ever leave us. When I heard about his death on Monday, my mind jumped towards several people I knew would be upset—from my best friend and mentor, 66, to my musician ex-boyfriend, 21. And I thought about everyone who won't get it, too. People I went to school with. Former colleagues. Basics I know will be sitting there wondering why we are upset about Bowie's death. I detest them for it.
Earthling. Me and Tom have taken MDMA and slept together. Finally. I fancied him the moment I met him, but he wasn't interested in me at first. It took some charming. But there we were, coming down together, naked. "Is this David Bowie?" he asks. "I didn't know he did drum'n'bass." Bowie has so many groundbreaking, era-defining moments to choose from—Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, take your pick—but Earthling is something I feel I can own. It's mine and Bowie's little secret, a kiss with someone else's boyfriend, snatched in a dark club corridor. I see Bowie looking at me and shaking his head: "No one really got this album, Paris." And I say, "Fuck those music snobs, David. I know where you were coming from."
"Little Wonder" was the first time I saw him on TV. I wanted more. He was so different to all the vacuous pop stars I grew up with.
I knew I never had to worry about seeing him on The X Factor. I trusted him implicitly not to be shit. He wasn't at the Olympics. Bowie wouldn't perform at the Olympics. He was cooler than every cool person you've ever met or are likely to meet. I believe in equality, but I don't believe we're all equal. Some people are special. David Bowie was one of them.
I can't say that I never felt disappointed with him. We hold those we adore to the highest standards, after all. I admired him for hanging out with transgender women and coming out as gay in 1972, just years after homosexuality had been decriminalized in Britain. Four years later he told Playboy: "It's true—I am a bisexual," but by 1983 he described this declaration as "the biggest mistake I ever made" and said he was "always a closet heterosexual." Asked in 2002 whether he still believed it was a mistake, he replied: "Interesting. I don't think it was a mistake in Europe, but it was a lot tougher in America. I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual... America is a very puritanical place, and I think it stood in the way of so much I wanted to do." As a right-on student, I felt betrayed when I saw this. It seemed opposite to everything he stood for. David Bowie wasn't supposed to care about puritans.
Ultimately, though, Bowie didn't owe anyone an explanation. Not America. Not me.
More memories. It's 2010 and I'm having lunch with the boys from Gay Times in Kentish Town when "The Man Who Sold the World" comes on. I feel like an old friend just walked in. Or all those drunken house parties at uni in Brighton when Carmel, pissed on red wine, would insist on playing "Starman" and singing her heart out. We all joined in. Of course we did.
Bowie didn't just make being different 'OK.' He made it fucking brilliant.
Aunty Rachael used to babysit me. She had Labyrinth on VHS. It didn't occur to me then that Jareth wasn't really a goblin, but played by a human being. If you believe Bowie was a human being. I'm not totally convinced.
My social media is full of people saying things like, "He gave me the courage to be myself," or, "He showed me that it was OK to be different." Many say Bowie helped them accept that they were gay or trans—that he saved their lives. In a society that punishes difference with violence, family rejection and isolation, I can believe it. Even today, people are killing themselves because of pressure to conform, so what must it have been like 40 years ago? "Being a very lonely and depressed trans in the 70s, Bowie and his music kept me alive, gave me a reason to keep on living," as one of my followers tweeted. Another wrote, "As a cack-eyed ginger weirdo who never fitted in anywhere he was the only time I ever saw anyone else who made it brilliant." And this is it—he was an ambassador for the bizarre. Bowie didn't just make being different "OK." He made it fucking brilliant.
When in doubt, listen to David Bowie. In 1968, Bowie was a gay, ginger, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak walking around south London in a dress, being shouted at by thugs. Four years later, he was still exactly that—but everyone else wanted to be like him, too. If David Bowie can make being David Bowie cool, you can make you cool. PLUS, unlike David Bowie, you get to listen to David Bowie for inspiration. So you're one up on him, really. You're already one ahead of David Bowie.
Storms raged across Britain on Monday morning, but by midday the sun was shining with that brilliance, peculiar to January, that forces you to pause and wonder at the glory of life. The ground was glistening when I stepped outside. I looked up for a rainbow, but couldn't find one.
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