Mr. King sent a text early Monday morning. It said, "Sorry to give you bad news first thing, love, but I wanted to be the one who told you. David Bowie died. I know this is devastating for you." It was. Devastating.
The usual morning routine was full of random tears, making lunches, making a cup of tea, getting the kids in the car. I put on "Oh! You Pretty Things" and drove them to school. Fitting. My older one cried at the first chord of the next track on my Bowie playlist, "Life on Mars?" and asked me to turn it off. My younger one wanted to hear "Oh! You Pretty Things" again, so I put it on again. The rest of the day was a tribute to the man. Music all day. Things I know he would have loved to listen to. Mingus, especially. Mingus is twisted and delicious.
I have musical kids. The first time I showed them this live version of "Oh! You Pretty Things" my youngest said, "Look at his teeth!" She said he looked weird. She was puzzled about how a man like that could be a musical superstar based on what she knows now about what musical superstars look like in the 21st century. She was five. Five-year-olds are as honest as rain. They can't avoid it. I said, "Does it matter what his teeth look like?" She said, "No. But what does this song even mean?"
Touché, Bowie. This is exactly what you wanted, isn't it?
You wanted listeners to ask questions.
Maybe that's why you were so important to me.
You made me think and interpret and guess and risk being wrong about all of it, and yet you made sure I was never wrong because you left your lyrics open to interpretation. As of Monday, there isn't a person on Earth who knows what David Bowie meant in all of his music. The only man who really knew is gone.
The day before Bowie's death, The New Yorker published this article about his recent album. It's entitled "The Beautiful Meaninglessness of David Bowie" and while the title sounds all wrong, the article is a fantastic exploration of Bowie's use of surrealist thought to navigate big questions.
"From the beginning, Bowie showed an interest in exploring the fragmentation of identity and meaning."
"It was rare for Bowie to embrace clear meaning. The title of one of his most plainspoken songs, “‘Heroes,’” is suspended in a second set of quotation marks, largely to disrupt any straightforward interpretation."
"...his songs should be about nothing, which in turn allows them to be about everything."
"Rock and roll started as a form of enchantment and has become, in large part, another symptom of the banality of our acquisitive society. By persisting in deliberately rejecting reason, Bowie reminds us that there are plenty of reasons to do so."
These quotes, along with the many tributes to Bowie this week that recall every persona he invented and lived have changed me in some way. That last quote--about rejecting reason--really hit me in the brain.
I was the girl who took shop class in seventh grade. Short hair. Weird shoes (we called them my "Bowie Shoes" in my house.) When it was time to learn how to silkscreen in seventh grade shop, I made a screen in big letters. DAVID BOWIE. I used bright orange ink. I wore the shirt until it fell to pieces.
Seventh grade. Twelve. Weirdo. Smart. Not interested in school anymore. Interested in good music. Didn't own a Walkman yet. Still listened to cassette tapes on a Panasonic tape recorder with mono sound. The first time I heard "Oh! You Pretty Things" was on that Panasonic.
Seventh grade. The one school picture I was ashamed to see or show anyone, ever. Ever, ever, ever. Mr. King didn't see this picture until last night and I've known him nearly 30 years. What is it about this girl that had me so ashamed? Awkward. Different. Weird. Made-people-uncomfortable.
And yet when I got the news of Bowie's death, the first image that popped into my mind was the seventh grade school picture.
Why had I been ashamed of it all this time? The Bowie-inspired haircut? The weird sweater I bought at Boscov's which had a matching pair of leg warmers? The blanch of my skin? My long neck? Thirty-four years have passed since I was this girl and I'm finally proud of her for being a seventh-grade risk-taker. Here she is. Amy, age 12. Bowie fan for years. Shop class attendee--one girl among all boys. Early smoker. Music lover. Oddly gender non-conforming. Asker of big questions.
"Oh! You Pretty Things" was the main inspiration for my most recent novel, I Crawl Through It.
If you've read the book and know the song, then you probably understand why. Then again, both the book and the song are open to interpretation, which is how I like things to be. Not everyone understood Bowie for this and not everyone understands me for this, either. I get letters from readers asking for concrete, easy, linear explanations of my books. They want me to answer their questions.
I never do. I thank them for reading and writing to me, but I think personal questions that arise from experiencing art are none of my business.
David Bowie wasn't available to me to ask, "Hey Dave, what was 'Space Oddity' all about, anyway?"
But then, I never needed him to be.
His songs made sense to me in my own way. That's what art is.
I liked the way he risked everything and came out winning. I'm sure not every day of his life was grand and I know he got shit for being who he was sometimes, but that's the risk of taking risks.
I Crawl Through It is about everything and nothing. It's about Mozart and Hawkeye Pierce. Risk-takers. It's about four seniors living in abstract reality, being risk-takers. How many different types of risk-takers are there? Would you take off in a helicopter you couldn't see? I would.
I took time this week to figure out why I took risks like that seventh-grade haircut. Why did I take the risk of being the only girl in seventh grade shop class? Why did I take the risk of being a writer? Why have I used my (eventual) ability to publish books to publish weird, uncomfortable, risk-taking books?
The answer is clear today.
To me, the only way to live is on this edge. The only way to live is to enjoy being myself, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
Comfort is a state of mind.
My mind is loose and I like it that way.
Mark Rothko and Grace Hartigan.
You can't hear the notes if you're too uptight about the meaning.
There are ways to mimic the minor chords in Bowie's "Changes" with words. No sound, just words, then tears. This is my life's work.
I'm not sure if this post makes sense to anyone but me, and that's a risk I'm willing to take.
I don't usually talk about popular news or culture.
But Bowie was my first love. He was my first intellectual crush. He made me less afraid of everything.
And this week, he made me less afraid of a twelve-year-old kid who used to be me-- less afraid of myself.
This is the power of meaninglessness.