David Bowie was one of the first white musicians ever played in my home. My aunt, who was a musician and music aficionado, argued, “All those white people steal their styles from us. Why not just listen to the originators and leave the copycats alone?” One day, I’m home early from school and I heard:
I’ve never done good things
I’ve never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue
The plaintive semi-high pitched wailing struck a chord. I quietly sat next to my aunt as we listened to “Ashes to Ashes” a few more times. I asked her who was singing and she handed me the album sleeve. I was freaked out. What the hell was happening on the cover? A drawing of a white dude with flame red hair, wearing what looked like lipstick, next to a mysterious shadow. The album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), changed my sonic life. This is the year Bob Marley’s Uprising dropped. Marley and Bowie damn near defined my 1980s.
As a Jamaican, Marley was as much a factor of my household as oxygen and bammy. Whereas Marley informed my politics, my love of self and my culture, and gave me a greater understanding of my mother’s land, Bowie defined artistic weirdness for years to come. He gave me permission to create worlds and explore them with unabashed glee. Our identities did not have to be static or boring. We could be as freaky or as tailored as we wanted to be: capes, suits, butt naked — we could utilize our influences to develop new wholes, without devolving into appropriation. Bowie was a world maker.
Three years later, Let’s Dance. One of the best albums in the history of pop music.
There is no better piece of pop perfection than “Modern Love.” But track two, Iggy Pop’s penned “China Girl” was some foul racist trash that felt like speeding down a hill on a skateboard, then hitting a piece of raised pavement. From gliding, to tumbling, to crashing, to pain.
How can someone so ahead of our collective time be so regressive? Then Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture followed by Tonight. And like most of us, we forgave him. We rationalized it by telling ourselves that Bowie wanted Pop to make some money. How could we be mad at Bowie for supporting his homey?
Yeah, and there was that whole Hitler thing.
With that racist kernel of “China Girl” still stuck in my teeth, those two albums blew my mind and made me explore Bowie’s entire catalog. What I discovered permanently changed me. And once again, I forgave him.
By this time, I was already a full-blown science fiction/fantasy/horror head and Bowie was the living embodiment of the best of it. From the aforementioned Ziggy Stardust, to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Major Tom mythology, hell, Labyrinth a little later — Bowie took cultural artifacts that a black boy wasn’t supposed to care about and said it was ‘okay’ to care and participate. Not only was it okay, it was preferred and desirable. My uncle, rest his soul, said Bowie was in a constant state of “freak flux.” Ever changing. Ever evolving. Always with a nod to something grander, more cosmic.
Bowie wasn’t the only one doing this. The Parliament/Funkadelic camp was the undisputed kings of the freak funk. But they had a cosmology that was almost impenetrable, so as a young kid, I wasn’t able to grasp it like I do now. Bowie was a single man engaging the world on his terms with music, art, performance — a bravery that continues to inspire me.
For a black kid who wasn’t into traditionally black (American) things, David Bowie acted as a kind of home for me. Still does, though not as strongly as in my youth. I’ve been tempered by decades of politics, spirituality, culture, love, and friendships. I am no longer the impressionable youth I was, but a man who is grounded while looking towards the stars. And Bowie is more than partially responsible for that.
The man who fell to Earth has returned to the stars.
David Robert Jones aka David Bowie
8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016
And there is this.