by Kai LoMuscio
“And I want to be free/Don’t you want to be free?/Do you like girls or boys?/It’s confusing these days/but moondust will cover you.” – David Bowie, “Hallo Spaceboy”
On his 69th birthday, David Bowie released his 25th album, Blackstar. Two days later, on January 10, 2016, he passed away. Looking around the internet, it was easy to see that his loss was hitting people hard. One of my favorite reactions was from Steve Silberman on Twitter: “Goodbye, David. You probably saved the lives of millions of gay/trans/odd/“extraterrestrial” kids. RIP. 2:03 AM – 11 Jan 2016.”
That’s the thing! David Bowie is a great and magical part of what makes it easier and more comfortable for me, and for so many other people, to be queer. He permanently expanded the boundaries of fashion, sexuality, gender, theater, and music. He set the example that it is okay to change as a human being as many times as you want and he has been doing it since the late sixties. If you are a young LGBTQ community member and you haven’t had the chance to hear David Bowie’s music and his story, trust me, it’s worth it.
David Robert Jones was born to working class parents in Brixton, England. He had an older half-brother named Terry Burns who introduced him to jazz. When David was a teenager, Terry was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The disease ran in their family, and David worried that he would contract it one day. Perhaps this added to his fearlessness as an artist, musician, and performer.
At the age of 9, David decided he wanted to play baritone sax for the Little Richard Band and took up the instrument. David listened to everything he could in his youth (except for country) including jazz, classical, cabaret, and even Tibetan horns. He was also heavily influenced by Kabuki Theater and German Expressionism. When David turned 18, he had to do something to distinguish himself from Davey Jones (of Monkees fame), so he changed his last name to Bowie.
In his early twenties, David Bowie worked with mime Lindsay Kemp, whom he credits with much of his stagecraft. Bowie and the bands he played with became known for their gender-bending performances. Though people made fun of them for a long time, they kept on playing.
Bowie released Space Oddity when he was 22 years old, just three days before a man walked on the moon for the first time. Bowie was gaining popularity. His gender expression was nontraditional throughout his career. Bowie’s first wife, Angie, suggested he accentuate his feminine side even more. In 1972, with the release of his fifth album, Bowie declared to the newspaper that he was gay (though bisexual better suited him in later years). He was in an open marriage. He wore long dresses. Quite a big deal for that time.
The fifth album Bowie released was the theatrical glam rock piece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was significant. This is the album where David Bowie became well known, ironically not as David Bowie, but as his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust. His work had a large impact on popular culture, and it’s been said he was an inspiration for the creation of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Bowie toured for an intense two years and then felt he was losing himself. He was also getting closer to the age at which his brother started exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. Thankfully, he didn’t experience the same fate.
David Bowie went on to release 25 studio albums, star in 22 films, and become an accomplished painter. He constantly reinvented his sound and his look, though science fiction and outer space recurred as themes. Influenced by William S. Burroughs’ style of cut-up writing, Bowie sometimes wrote songs by cutting up a page of writing into lines and rearranging them.
Bowie wrote experimental rock, jazz, cabaret, electronic music, and the pop music that made him well known. He is the man who wrote the song “Changes” (1971) and starred in the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth (1986). He recorded and performed through five decades. He had many lovers, two wives, and two children. David Bowie’s music is spiritual and philosophical, often about isolation and being miserable, and yet somehow his confidence in recording and performing it are comforting.
I can’t imagine a time without David Bowie. I grew up listening to him on records when I was in middle school, tapes and CDs in high school and college. Today, I’m listening to him on Spotify and watching him on YouTube. I love the way he played with gender and sexuality in his work. I look forward to dancing to his music for as long as I can.
Favorite Bowie movie: The Linguini Incident (1992).
Favorite Bowie album: Outside (1995).