It’s strange when someone I don’t know personally passes away, and my first reaction is “No. I need them to be in this world.” The way I react to different deaths fascinates me. With my two grandmas I was sad, but I didn’t cry – they were both so “grande”.* An older, influential artist I met once in college? Cried for a whole day. Didn’t expect that. With my cat, I cried for a week. My mom? Epic, of course with layers of emotion. So, people I’ve never met, but were influential on my life? Usually, I react with, “Aw. Really? Aw, that’s so sad. Wow.” I accept it and move on pretty quickly. I was surprised with how I reacted with Bowie. Impossible, I thought. Why? I think I got a clue within the first 24 hours of the news.
I completely underestimated the effect of David Bowie on my childhood. I know I am not the only one having this thought process in the last few weeks. As a preteen, 1979-84, I went from disco to The Go Go’s, Blondie, Rockabilly, and Big Band. It was my friends who bought Bowie records, and we rocked out to them in their bedrooms. These were “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, “Let’s Dance”, and “Tonight”. I was in the awkward glaring light of those 11-15 year old years, but what made it more complex… I was weird.
Merriam-Webster dictionary mentions “soothsayer” as a definition for weird. Soothsayer? You mean “a person who predicts the future by magical, intuitive, or more rational means”? So Bowie. Cambridge uses the word “unexpected” when describing weird. I like that one, too. From Oxford, I picked out “supernatural”… of course. And then when you go to Oxford’s more archaic definition (Scottish, really), we find “a person’s destiny”. Now we’re talking!
What were the first signs of weirdness? Oh, it’s hard to tell because like my friend, Maureen, I liked to talk to rocks as well when I was six years old, but that is usually thought of as… being a child. At about that age my parents asked me if I wanted to go to a “special school”. Because I talked to rocks? I don’t think so, but I remember I thought it was because I was really, really good at drawing swans. Seriously. I remember wondering why I had been chosen for such a privilege? To be taken away from all of my friends, my brother, and my mom who worked at my school? Must have been the swans. It had to be. No more neighborhood school. No more friends. And I actually wanted to go? That’s just weird.
Maybe I was a soothsayer! Because at the new school some of my really good friends had come as well. Also, at the new school we had more field trips, emergent curriculum, painting, music, projects, and Shakespeare. It was radical. And taking the bus was an Adventure.
But still, my little ten year old self thought the new school wasn’t weird enough. The weird department was clearly lacking at this otherwise fine establishment, and my efforts to improve it landed me in the principal’s office with my new best friend.
My new best friend, Cori was one of those Bowie kids. She had all kinds of music playing at her house that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. They had relatives in Europe, so they had ACCESS. Her slightly older brother was basically Ziggy Stardust’s little brother. Cori wore tuxedos to school. I wore jumpsuits my mom made me with the alphabet all over it. For us, a fun playdate was reading some random play aloud to each other.
So, one day we decided that we would offer lessons on how to be weird. The lessons were free, and would be conveniently located in the girls’ restroom during lunch recess, right next to the sinks. I recall there was a nice big mirror there. We were bright sparks of color in a whited out restroom. It looked like we were filming “Life on Mars”.
The lessons (which were really just the early days of performance art education) were going well until one day we were discovered by the authorities. Someone who spotted in us the signs of a weird revolution must have told. I don’t blame them. This special school was inside of a TRACT. Who can blame those local kids for being scared? We were bussed in from outside the tract. What was the administration thinking?
Fast forward to the world of surf punks and skaters in middle school… I continued my exploration of weird. I decided I was born in the wrong decade so I started dressing like it was the 1940’s. This was when I started designing and making my own clothes as well as picking up treasures at yard sales. I also started learning about the darker side of American history, reading about slavery, Native Americans and listening to my cousins’ stories in Mexico about missing journalists and what our government was doing in Latin America. Around this time, I remember singing Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” over the bar b q at a family get together which of course, concerned my relatives.
“Let’s Dance” marked the beginning of high school, and I wanted to dance… if only with the English boy who had the locker above me and dressed up like Bowie in “Blue Jeans” for Halloween. Yeah, even the metallic makeup. Meanwhile, I was only scaring my friends and others. For me, everyday was Halloween. A memorable outfit was my dad’s red 60’s hawaiian shirt tucked into my mom’s long, pleated, electric blue, wool skirt. African elephant necklace and black combat boots completed the look. For some reason I was very comfortable making every day an art performance… but I had encouragement.
Looking back on those formative years, I could say that was when I really needed Bowie. He was my first “Teacher of Weirdness” that I needed in homogeneous Orange County. He taught me to do the unexpected, to express myself through music, art and style with abandon. To not only dress up to clean the house, but make songs about it… choreographed of course. He taught me to stay in touch with what we come into this world as – “real humans”. Because we’re born as real humans. We’re born as artists. Capable of talking to rocks and traveling to Mars.
Jump almost thirty years ahead, and I am riding in the car early on a Monday morning staring at the news on my phone. Next to me is an artist driving the car that also inspires me every day since I fell in love with him when we were 18. Behind me are two incredible teenage artists who are my sons. For one of them – the song-writing one at the moment, “Ziggy Stardust” is one of his favorite albums. We’ve always made music. We’ve always made art. We’ve always been the best kind of weird – together. And whenever I had those moments as an adult when I thought, “Oh, my goodness. Who do I think I am? What am I doing?” Bowie was one of those people I would think of. I would think, “But… Bowie.” Always looking for encouragement, he was the example to me of acceptance of oneself, calling the bluff of artistic boundaries, and risking the approval of others for the sake of the possibility of discovering something new. So, I needed him in this world, and that was why.
But here is the crazy thing. With my mom, the moment I found out she passed away, I felt her rise up like a super hero. I was so proud of her. I was so beyond impressed. Within a few hours, I felt the same thing with Bowie. I didn’t even know him, so how do you explain that? I could try, but I’d rather embrace the mystery. Mysteries can be so beautiful. Especially when they are made of stardust and metallic makeup.
*While the Spanish word, “grande” can mean big or great, it also can mean old – but it’s a big, great kind of old… of course.