I was 14, listening to “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory when I realized I was gay.
It was in spring, around 7pm, and I was in my bedroom in the house where I grew up, listening to this record I’d heard twice. By the end of the evening I’d played it something like 15 times. I remember the neon glow of the new leaves disappearing into blue-black as it got dark outside and I sat on my bed thinking of the girl who loaned me Hunky Dory. Something ancient was working on me, for the first time. I thought of her face, asking myself this question, hoping the answer would be no, but it was always yes. I was as scared as I’ve ever been in my life, but I decided the possessor of such magic had to be worth it.
One of my favorite things in the flood of social media mourning today was local cartoonist Mark Campos’s Facebook post: “He was the flare that let us know it was all right to be weird now.” “Weird” is such a teenage concept—I’d say that night listening to Hunky Dory was one of the last times I really felt weird, and David Bowie made it bearable. The music and Bowie’s androgynous image on the album cover seemed implicitly sympathetic to the experience I was having, and I was comforted by the thought that its creator was still out there somewhere. He’s definitely still out there, in some sense, but the physical existence of that exemplary human was a special comfort that’s gone now.
Since Hunky Dory I’ve put at least one Bowie song on every mix tape I’ve made a lover, stolen countless points of style from Bowie album covers, and attended a yearly party called “Bowiemas,” held on his birthday, that filled a warehouse with glitter-and-silk drenched weirdos and demonstrated to me how religions begin. Perhaps the reason why there is grand annual Bowie party rather than a religion is that there is no written message from Bowie to be corroded by devotees into dogma. His lyrics are too fantastical and performative to be interpreted that way—they are clearly meant, like every part of his persona, to say things that can’t be said with words.
David Bowie manifested exactly what was inside him, without apology. Sometimes this was derivative, but all art is derivative. His endless self-reinvention, which we all do whether we like it or not, (“Rest in change,” read another favorite mourning post) preserved the honesty of his work. He was proof that the magic each person has inside them—the power to make art, the power to love—is best manifested by giving zero fucks. That is, you can’t worry that you’re weird, you can’t worry how you appear to other people—because it’s all performance anyway, and you need your whole self to put on that show. That’s what makes it your show, the only show you get.
The worst thing about Bowie’s death is that he’s so much like a hero in a myth or fable.
According to these culturally ingrained stories, he fulfilled his role as a hero. He should have earned immortality, or happily ever after. We think, at least fucking David Bowie should get a free pass. But nobody does. I think the belief in shamans and saints is related to evolution—when enough people venerate someone, or consider them to have “done it right,” their genes become magic, kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit. It’s hard, the way our brains are set up, to just be happy that a really good person existed. I still put Hunky Dory on when I have to do something that scares me, and I probably always will.