David Bowie’s self-appointed alien status was nothing, a mere indulgence, compared to the Alien Nation we relegated him to.“We” being black pre-teens of 1975 (actually, I was 10 years old) who discovered Bowie’s music, his visage, bisexuality and general white European weirdness in the dark bedroom record collections of older “play cousins” — even if they were new and emotionally distant cousins by marriage who made teenaged, angsty, drama-king spectacles of themselves as they discovered corners of their identities, outfitting them appropriately each day as Bowie himself did.
In 1975, when the spooky and ethereal “Fame” saturated radio airwaves, I was one of four black people — including a big, sweaty gym teacher who had a chubby for our mother — in Heritage Hill Elementary School in Springdale. We lived in the neighboring sprawling Springdale Acres apartment complex. Above us lived Norman Johnson — who’d soon enough marry an aunt — and his three unsupervised and wholly strange children, two of whom soon became my playmates.Their oldest brother was some mutant cross between Sly Stone’s Afro, Prince’s early conk and Bowie’s androgyny. He was mostly mute-mouth, a hardcore Rock fan and the keeper of the darkest and creepiest bedroom I have seen to this day.In there, though, were record albums and all the secret codes of their accompanying liner notes.He also played (at) the guitar, and he had Rock posters on his walls — all white people as I recall.
This is the first place I ever saw or heard David Bowie, and when I asked him who Bowie was, he said something in truncated teen-speak like: “Only the fucking greatest, man.”
And he closed the door and threatened us not to step foot again in his room.
Then came Bowie’s lip-synching appearance on Soul Train, proof that black folks give anybody a pass who can pass for funky. And in his slim-tailored suit, slicked-back dirty-blond hair and necktie flopping about, Bowie strutted the stage, moving his mouth to the words of “Fame” like a lonely peacock, totally and completely in his own head, yet still in the world somehow.
I was so impressed by how he was not a white performer kow-towing to blackness and miming soul; his swagger was authentic, and he looked at home and relieved by the unadulterated acceptance of the crowd getting down to the staccato electricity of Bowie’s music.I felt he was an Honorary Black Man.
I really did.I think this was due in large part to the fact that I “got” David Bowie. I understood his anguish, his loneliness, his quest to fit language to feelings and feelings to environments and his construction of his own environment despite — or maybe even because of — what other Rock stars or wannabe artists were doing.
Bowie set a standard not for anyone else, though many, many others like Kanye West, Prince, Lady Gaga, Patti Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat, et al, can count him an influence. Bowie set the standard out the gate for himself so he would never have to look back, then go back, to the beginning of himself and be tortured trying to make something up from scratch.
Since my introduction to him, Bowie has been a secret obsession; he became that perpetual car accident that I could never stop slowing down to gawk at. As I grew older and fell in love with magazines and all things ephemera, I spent my little bit of cash on nearly anything with Bowie’s face on the front of it, especially British magazines which, to this day, hold different sensibilities about the significance of music and musical fandom than we here in the United States.I read unauthorized Bowie biographies filled with all the debauchery of a life lived in search of ultimate freedoms of expression, searches for spiritual truths and sexual fulfillment.
Reading about Bowie was the first time I encountered the dirty notions of bisexuality and what that could mean to anyone who claimed and/or explored it.I envied Mick and Bianca Jagger, Iggy Pop, Angie Bowie and all her Nancy Spungen haziness because of their access and nearness to Bowie. I stared at the meticulous makeup during Bowie’s Spaceman/Ziggy Stardust era, and I just about fell over the first time I saw Bowie blowing a saxophone.
Now it can be told: I took up the saxophone in the fifth grade partially because Bowie played it. The other reason being because my mom had played sax when she was in high school.I was speechless by the time video art and technology caught up to Bowie’s costumed performance art and when MTV showed Bowie’s videos. They were events as big in my life as the premiers of Michael Jackson’s videos were for others.
By the time of “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love” and “Little China Girl,” when his old-school fans thought he’d sold out to post-disco dance records, is when Bowie got my full attention again. His videos were small, independent films and still hold up, style-wise, to the rigors of time.In fact, Let’s Dance is the only Bowie album (cassette tape) I own and I am not sure why.Probably because my David Bowie love in my clique — largely, my large black family — has been a secret.
It is delicate enough surviving in a circle of mostly paternalistic, know-it-all black manchildren who used to constantly accuse me and attack me for “talking white.” No sense in tipping my hand to all the “weird” white music I loved during our formative years.
Hall & Oates was fine. So was Boz Scaggs. Gino Vannelli passed muster. So did Bobby Caldwell. That was about it for the Unspoken List of White Soul Music everyone in my family liked and deemed OK to play through the car radio.But Bowie?I had to dig him on my own tie. Our radios didn’t even mechanically stop on white Rock stations like WEBN. That was heresy where I came from, but since I was trying to come from Bowie’s likewise land of loneliness and artistic articulation and not as an affectation but as a life choice, a lifestyle choice of relentless searching, with truthfulness at every turn and sometimes the requisite anxiety, I defied the sameness of my socialization and remained alongside David Bowie.
Because sometimes the real challenge for a precocious little black girl is hunting for inspiration, and the guts to be whom she is meant to be comes dressed in spandex and full makeup.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]