Fuck School: David Bowie Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Identity, Acceptance, and Art
He didn't just scratch the surface; he excavated it, renovated it, and tore it down, just so he could start all over again.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
I will always remember where I was when I heard the news. It was 6:30 AM and I was driving to the shop to buy milk. Radio 4 was on and some experts were waxing lyrical about the genius of Bowie, who had been silent for nearly a decade at this point. “Fuck,” I thought, “he must be dead.”
I pulled over, the pit of my stomach knotted, the welling from deep inside started to rush to the surface. But then they played “Where Are We Now?.” I’d never heard this, and that was impossible. He sang reflectively about Berlin. Popping synapses in my brain flipped into overtime, as they tried to turn shock into elation. Bowie was back after ten years of nothingness. His comeback album The Next Day soon followed with a campaign defined by total media blackout.
This morning at around 6 30 AM, I woke again to breaking Bowie news, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the immense sense of loss that emerged from the depths of my being. Those knots in my stomach were as real as my tears—I sobbed. Emotions that should be retained for family members not rock stars that you’ve never actually met. Irrational ones, that look weird from the outside.
My family understood. Bowie has always been a part of our lives together. He has been central to my life since I was 11 years of age, when I stood in front of a family friend’s TV transfixed by his eerie performance of “Drive in Saturday” on the Russell Harty Show and knew my life would never be the same again. I became an addict. Not in recovery, not in denial, but an addict through and through. I had to buy everything he did, in every format available. I will even buy every re-issue that comes out post-death. I have had to find a way to like everything. Even albums like Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine 1 & 2 find me arguing for their collective ‘misunderstood’ status.
But why does one man mean so much to me? To us? I know I’m not alone in being touched by his music and his life. A scan of Facebook and Twitter shows tens of thousands sharing their feelings about what the great man meant to them. It is symbolic and fitting that it is personal experience of Bowie which has taken centre stage though. His work had, since the success of Ziggy Stardust, been accompanied by a huge, unmistakable, and brilliantly loud concept. Whether the death of Ziggy or the return of The Thin White Duke, the electronic music pioneer or the new media alchemist, Bowie’s each and every move has been supported by a look, a style, a quote, an image, a sound, a NOISE. But with 2013’s The Next Day, there was only silence. Silence in the present moment. Bowie, one of art’s great communicators seemed to be saying nothing at all. And he’d been that way for ten years.
That entire project was an obliteration of "Bowie: the myth." The album’s cover art featured a blank white square placed over the iconic Heroes image. Stylised text graphics replaced by basic, functional font. The single "Where Are We Now?" featured an inverted image of Bowie in Thin White Duke pose as its cover. The video for second single "The Stars are Out Tonight" featured Tilda Swinton playing an Angie Bowie type character and Norwegian model Iselin Steiro playing Man Who Fell to Earth period David. The video’s narrative recalled that film in numerous ways. Only this time the alien wasn’t Thomas Jerome Newton, but Bowie the youngster, observed from the outside by an older and distant Bowie before becoming ravaged by his celebrity self. It’s all about dislocation and immersion. To uncover the truth you had to challenge the myth; the final meaning was up to you the consumer. Bowie then was not who he said he was, but who we wanted him to be. Mirroring today, it was a concept that placed us the fans, critics and consumers at the center of everything, our personal experience, mimicking the ego chatter of social media.
Last Friday’s release of Blackstar was delivered through a similar silence. Only this time it came wrapped up with mystical imagery. Since Friday, I've watched Bowie Facebook fan groups as they discussed and dissected the record. My own feeling was that it featured four songs of inventive brilliance, and three songs that are just a little “too saccharine” (to paraphrase his character in The Hunger). I wrote that I’d wished Flying Lotus could have been on board with production instead of Tony Visconti. We were all typing away furiously, defining Bowie now according to our own needs. Once again we were at the center.
Today, I have the kind of guilt you feel when someone tells you an old friend has just died and all you can think is, “But I was talking to him on Friday; I should have made more effort.” My immediate thought: “But he only just released a new album—which I was critical of only last night.” Today, when I put the album on again, the “Lazarus” opening lyric brought a tear to me eye. “Look up here, I’m in heaven”—how did we not know? Those saccharine songs meant something now.
This morning, on the school run, my youngest two kids asked how the death of a celebrity could bother me so much? Without wanting to go into the difference between a star and celebrity, I tried to explain. I tried to explain how that "Drive in Saturday" moment brought home the power of rock music to me. All of the adults in the room disapprovingly mocked his high camp, and my Grandad blurted: “What is this jungle music?!” (before that was even a genre). A light pinged in my brain—this thing makes people listen. And I realized I wanted be heard.
By the time of my O Levels (now GCSE’s) came along, I’d bombed brilliantly, failing everything but art. The reason was simple. A light had been ignited in me that made school feel pointless. I hung up my football boots and joined my first band. A couple of years later punk happened—and I jumped in two footed, Doc Marten-clad. Then The Futurists (or New Romantics) happened and I was there with eyeliner and lip-gloss. I blame David Bowie. Sorry, I mean I thank David Bowie.
He challenged us to challenge ourselves. His proclamations on bisexuality and blurring of gender forced us to look at our own prejudices. Today, that might seem like a given, but as a pubescent teenager in the 1970s this open minded, accepting position was utterly radical and fearless. I learned to not judge a book by its cover and not to be afraid of difference. He enabled many of us to adopt quite sophisticated attitudes to identity at a stupidly young age. To adults looking down at us, this was a dangerous ideology in a Britain clinging to values that dated back to Victorian times. Many men had only just got over the thought of women working, and now they had to deal with homosexuality, gender bending and fluid identities? Bowie’s sheer existence highlighted the canyon ahead we had become of our parents’ generation.
When, over the course of late-70s, a couple of my friends came out to me, I wasn’t shocked or scared. My feeling was simple acceptance. One of them had had to plaster the walls of his bedroom with pictures of naked women just to stop his brother and father from bullying him. I realized that acceptance is as straight-forward as I thought. I thank Bowie for this tolerance.
He was my teacher. I became music-obsessed, searching out every band that Bowie talked about, and every artist that had been inspired by him. From Iggy to Human League and Lou Reed to The Associates, I scoured record shops and immersed myself in the radio.
We might have been shit, but we continued to form bands, and I kept changing my own style, reinventing my identity. From punk I moved to post-punk. By the 80s, I was in a pop-rock band. Then I went industrial goth, dabbled in metal funk, and eventually I toyed around with electronic music. I blame Bowie, no I thank Bowie for each and every move.
I devoured everything he talked about in interviews. I discovered a love of art, literature, poetry and performance. I read the philosophers he name-dropped, and eventually I was the most well-read secondary school drop out ever. I felt like I was growing with him, and I was. At the age of 27 I enrolled on Nottingham Trent University’s Communication Studies degree where I relished in the emergence of post-modernism as a module topic. Naturally, I wrote about Bowie. Following the degree I moved into a career as a music journalist and author, inspired by the fires Bowie lit in me. Years later, I gave my Professorial lecture about him at Southampton Solent University, where I am now Professor of Music Industries. So, from academic failure to Professor, I blame, no thank David Bowie for that too.
Yes, Bowie re-invented the wheels of music and production so many times in his career, but he leaves a legacy that goes way beyond music. He changed people’s perceptions, he challenged us to grow with him. Throw a pebble into the pool of popular culture over the last 50 years and Bowie is never too many ripples from the centre. The Beatles scratched the surface, but Bowie excavated it, renovated and tore it all down again, just to start all over again.
A few years ago, while listening to “Space Oddity” in the car—as Bowie sang the line “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do” – my youngest daughter asked me, "Is planet Earth blue because it's sad?" It gave a whole new spin to the song, and I think I prefer her understanding of it. Today, Planet Earth is blue. RIP David Jones, thank you for the education.