In Dardenland, there are two running truths:
- Lenny Kravitz is my husband.
- David Bowie is my father.
For some reason, it’s readily understood among my friends and acquaintances that Lenny is my husband; he belongs to me and there is little dissension about that. (Perhaps because I acknowledge everyone else’s imaginary baes and don’t try to claim them.) It’s to the point where anytime Lenny Kravitz is on television, I get a good five or six messages or tags notifying me. Sometimes it gets so annoying that I wish I never married him.
Not so easily acceptable is when I tell people David Bowie is my father. The response is usually a quizzical look followed by “If David Bowie is your father, then who is your mother?” Well my mother is my mother, dummy! You met her!
Of course David Bowie is not really my father. No matter how much I wished it were so, it was not. My father never claimed me, didn’t want me, and is not interested in a relationship with me even now. It is not a unique story and doesn’t warrant further explanation: he is a deadbeat.
Somewhere in my childhood, I came to terms with the fact that the man to whom I owe half my DNA would not eventually come around. I honestly don’t recall a whole lot of yearning and depression, though there was sadness and disappointment. As an only child, I somehow got over the absence and filled the void with books, movies, and music. Even as I write this, I recall watching Entertainment Tonight with my family and keeping up with pop culture that way.
So it must have been Entertainment Tonight that first introduced me to the upcoming film Labyrinth. It had everything I needed. At that time, everything I needed was the Muppets and anything related to Jim Henson, who himself was a fatherly demi-god to me. On Entertainment Tonight, I remember the fuss they raised about this man playing The Goblin King. “Rocker David Bowie” was how he was usually described.
This early images from Labyrinth were amazing. By the time I saw the Shaft of Hands, I was sold. Mommy, we HAVE to see Labyrinth.
And we did.
Contrary to popular belief, I did not fall in love with David Bowie then, and I am not in love with David Bowie now. I’ve never been sexually attracted to him. Not even once, generous package in Labyrinth be damned.
What I saw on the silver screen was The Goblin King: a flamboyantly masculine, magical ruler who lived at the center of an impossible puzzle. He wore makeup, carried a cane, and led a band of misfit goblins. He wore shiny things and played with shiny things, just like me. I’ve never owned a G.I. Joe, but ask me how many crystals and prisms I played with well before Labyrinth.
He was larger than life. I was here for all of it.
As far as films go, Labyrinth appealed my eight year old sensibilities. Although I had friends and was well-liked, I always felt different. An outsider on the inside. I liked a lot of things my friends had no particular awareness of, and Labyrinth only made it better (or worse, depending on your perspective). The film made me delve deeper into fantasy literature, such as A Wrinkle in Time. I was exposed to the art of M.C. Escher. I fell in love with the acrobatics of Michael Moschen. And of course, Labyrinth was my gateway drug to the music of David Bowie.
Labyrinth came out in 1986. For the next three years I listened to the vinyl album over and over and watched the VHS tape practically every weekend. I wish I had kept count of how many times I’ve seen it. Perhaps not that many, but it sure feels like hundreds.
Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered…
Sound +Vision came out in 1989, when I was ten. By then VH1 had done its part to make sure I was caught up with all the Bowie music videos I could possibly fall in love with: China Girl, Let’s Dance, and Modern Love were favorites. Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, the long form music video for “Blue Jean” was also really good. And perhaps by then, the film Absolute Beginners had begun playing on DC’s channel 20.
In those three years, I was fully indoctrinated as I could be as a relatively poor kid who couldn’t buy his own music. When Sound + Vision came out, my body was ready.
While I don’t think I cried when I opened my Christmas gifts and found this three cassette transparent box, I do remember utter elation. I had no idea what I was going to hear, but I knew it would be pure excellence.
Now, had anyone in my family known what this box set was supposed to be, they would not have gotten it for me. Sound + Vision was, and remains, a treat for the fans. The vast majority of the collection is B-sides, demos, and alternate takes on classic tracks. For example, the version of “The Prettiest Star” found here is a previously unreleased mono take (which remains my favorite version). Another example is an all-German version of “Heroes,” called “Helden” here.
I largely listened to Sound + Vision on a Walkman. Listening to the opening sounds of “Station to Station” in my ear sent chills through my body. I thought that train was somehow right behind me. And “Warszawa” remains a chilling song I’d rather not even listen to. That’s how weird and evocative it was, yet I still loved it. I loved every last track on those tapes to death.
Before Sound + Vision, my love for all things David Bowie was quirky, but still mainstream, as everything I knew of him was family-friendly, or at the very least, appropriate for daytime viewing on VH1 and local television. After Sound + Vision, I felt changed. This love wasn’t just about Labyrinth anymore. I had listened to a genius.
Had I been less possessive of my things, I might have loaned the tapes out to share this experience with my friends. But really, who among them would be receptive? I knew I was listening to bona fide rock and roll. The closest my friends got to this kind of music was Madonna, George Michael, and Peter Gabriel–again, thank you VH1. In reality, the rest of my circle was being turned out by hip-hop and go-go, genres I would not appreciate until I was practically an adult. In the meantime, I’d just have to appreciate David Bowie by myself.
I read up on David Bowie as much as I could over the next few years. I read the liner notes to Sound + Vision religiously as well as any articles I could find. Somehow I found out about his ex-wife Angie and his son, Zowie Bowie (really [and thankfully] named Duncan Jones). By the time David Bowie got married to Iman in 1992, I was an expert. (I probably was not, but who was gonna check me? Literally nobody else I knew listened to him.)
Much has been written about how David Bowie represents outsiders through his craft and it is all true. He was at once queer and straight, masculine and feminine, refined and otherworldly. He was rock and roll, surely, but he was also soul–and I suppose that sound, as well as the occasional background vocals by Luther Vandross, is what drew me in.
Rumors had swirled about Luther’s sexual orientation for years and my household was not immune to such gossip. Add to that narrative David Bowie’s admitted (if not exaggerated) bisexuality, my young mind crafted a story in which David Bowie had turned out Luther Vandross and now they were just good friends. How I got there, I don’t know, but it’s a story that seemed natural to my emerging, imminently queer mind.
I had deep emotions for boys at a pretty young age. I remember being in first grade at Bunker Hill Elementary School, gazing upon a beautiful third grader playing across the asphalt yard, and thinking to myself “I’m in love with a boy.” Chalk it up to the Cancerian sensitivity or the melodramatics of what was on television at the time (Dynasty, Dallas, et al), but that’s what I really thought–that I had fallen into impossible, devastating love with someone of my own gender.
I buried those feelings deep inside and hoped they’d go away, even as I got drawn deeper and deeper into the Bowie mystique.
At a certain age, perhaps 12 or 13, I realized that when I masturbated, I was thinking of my pastor’s stepson. There was no going back: I was gay. Well, at the time, I convinced myself that I was really bisexual just like David Bowie, and everything would eventually be okay. If Bowie could marry Iman, then maybe I could marry a woman some day, too.
It wasn’t until I reached college that I realized that bisexual thing was just a stepping-stone, but thank you David Bowie for getting me there safely, with thoughts of suicide only creeping into my head once, and that was only after a terrible relationship my senior year–not because I felt I wouldn’t be accepted or because God didn’t love me.
Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
I was largely late to the Bowie party compared to the rest of the fandom, entering into what most believe was his lowest point creatively–that terrible decade called the 1980s. But for me, it was a golden age. As written above, I got to dive head-first into Sound + Vision, and soon after, The Singles Collection, aka The Singles 1969 to 1993. With the Singles Collection, I was finally able to have in my possession the “real versions” of the songs that were demos and remixes on Sound + Vision. I definitely wore those cassette tapes out. I brought them to school and finally shared them with friends. I was in junior high school by then, and even though we were in the midst of a great wave of urban music, I did inject some rock into my friends’ lives.
I should note that the only recollection I have of the album Black Tie White Noise album, which also came out in 1993, was the single “Jump They Say.” Loved the song, hated the video–didn’t want to see my hero playing around with the concept of death.
1995 is when I began purchasing my own Bowie albums when they came out–with my own damn money from summer and after school jobs. I felt like a grown-up and this is perhaps why the later years are my favorite Bowie era. Outside, Earthling, “Hours…,” Heathen, Reality… all of these albums were the soundtrack to my life as I came into my own as a student, as a man, and as a novelist.
So many tributes will be written in this vein, so I will add only the following pieces of trivia:
In my first novel, Lazarus, there is a scene in which Adrian Collins, who is pledging a fraternity, has to give a special greeting to one of the alumni brothers. Since Adrian is the best singer on the pledgeline, so hearing him deliver the greeting is a special treat. The Brother? Big Brother Sound & Vision.
“Don’t you wonder sometiiiiiiiimes….’bout sound and visionnnn?”
There may be other Bowie Easter eggs in my writing–the tributes are practically subconscious at this point.
Additionally, I create music playlists for each of my novels. “Fame” is a sort of theme song for Adrian Collins in Covenant, as he is fresh off the “burning sands” for his fraternity and reclaims his title as “Big Man on Campus.” “It’s Gonna Be Me” is a love song for Adrian and his eventual boyfriend, varsity basketball player Isaiah Aiken.
Several Bowie tracks are also on the soundtrack of Epiphany, including “We All Go Through” from ‘Hours…’ and “Right” from Young Americans. There is not a novel I’ve written without the help of a David Bowie song or two.
As his final single “Lazarus” is also the name of my first novel…well, let’s just say even though I know he wasn’t reading my novels for inspiration, it’s nice that we have this one small thing in common.
When David Bowie had his heart attack in 2004, I was convinced that he would be retired from music for good. The re-releases, compilations, and box sets kept coming, but the new music was nowhere to be seen. Although I did really want new releases, somewhere deep in my heart I wanted him to just chill and be a dad and a husband.
Isn’t that weird? This was a man I did not know personally, but for some reason I was like “Nah, we good. Take care of that baby.”
In the meantime, I delved even deeper into his earlier music, even before Space Oddity. While I continue to work on new novels, “Love You Till Tuesday” and “In The Heat of the Morning” from the deluxe edition of David Bowie have been playing on an eternal loop in my head. There are times where I envision my main characters holding each other in bed while they listen to this album.
Perhaps I needed a decade away from Bowie to be able to appreciate the totality of his career and his message. I definitely needed that decade to appreciate what are perhaps his greatest albums, The Next Day and Blackstar.
In that time, I reached a certain level of peace about having a father who does not love me. I had used every means at my disposal to reach him and other members of my family, but they were fruitless–until I met my half-brother. I am proud that he and I have begun and maintained a relationship. The fact that I don’t have a relationship with my father is now just a fact of my life. I’m no longer angry about it. I’m no longer sad.
David Bowie was never my father, either. But how fun it was to pretend that I could be the offspring of the most fabulous man in the universe. Here was a man who made it cool to be different. He was a man who thumbed his nose at binaries. There was never anything “either/or” about David Bowie. It was always “everything” and “here’s some more.”
I imagine that one day David Bowie decided he could have it all, and he did. I had a similar revelation a few years ago, too. And why not? Why not devote my life to the things that make me happy?
I never feel perfect–I feel successful. And when I don’t feel successful, I know that it’s okay because it’s not over yet. In all of those times, my ups and my downs, the formative years and the later years, the music of David Bowie has gotten me through. He wasn’t my dad, but his music was loyal, even when it was ever changing.
Indeed, I learned from David Bowie how to be free. How to be good. How to be okay. How to find within myself the tools that I needed when I couldn’t find them from anyone else.
I could be a Thin White Duke. I could be the Goblin King. I could marry well. I could be imperfect all my life while still being great.
I could overcome. I could do terrible things in my youth and atone for them. I could turn victimhood into victory.
I could speak out for others who don’t look like me or live my life.
I could create art that could survive for all time.
I am proud that the man we knew as David Bowie wrote the music that punctuated important moments in my life. How beautiful, how vast were his gifts to all of us. I am humbled by the accident, the mystery, the Divine Providence which dictated that I might live in the same time that David Bowie did; that his birth and his death and that my birth and my death would somehow exist in the same time stream so that I might somehow be influenced and forever changed by his genius.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I got to live at the same time as David Bowie. Yet, I am still profoundly sad that a man I jokingly called my father is now gone. There will be no more tours. There will be no more concerts. There will be no more evolution of style. A man we hoped would escape the call of the Grim Reaper has sung his final song.
I will never be the same. But God is change, so said Octavia Butler.
The man we knew as David Bowie is dead. May his gifts live on forever through us all.
Rashid Darden is a novelist.