- Eric Francis Coppolino
For a few weeks now, we've had the opportunity to grieve the loss of David Bowie, one of those rockers who seemed for all the world like a personal friend—and like someone destined to live forever. For me, that has meant appreciating what I learned from someone I consider one of my most significant teachers of life and art.
And of sex. David Bowie had so blended into the landscape of culture that we forget when this gender-morphing, bisexual, polyamorous, potentially extraterrestrial glam rock star was shocking to the sensibilities of the Western world. I am sure when encountering so much as a photo of this seemingly bizarre weirdo, a good few people were assured that the end was near. They were right.
Among the many things we can thank David Bowie for was taking his hammer and chisel to the concept of normal. When he was done, it had (at least for the moment) been sculpted down to size, the better to clear space for everyone else. If Jane's Addiction got to make hay out the idea that nothing's shocking, they have plenty to thank Bowie for, as does nearly every artist who knew about his work.
Every kid who has ever dared to be different does as well, even though they may be hearing about him for the first time now that he's gone. Bowie was a bold advocate for young people getting to be who they actually are, and to actually live our lives.
In the song "Young Americans," recorded in 1974, he asks, "We live for just these 20 years / Do we have to die for the 50 more?"
As for those walking dead adults he's referencing, he had earlier cautioned them in "Changes": "And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds / They're immune to your consultations / They're quite aware of what they're going through."
He knew just how to use his shock value for humor, style, beauty, fashion, and art. Yet that was not the point. The point was advocating the right to exist. That, above all else, is why David Bowie was our friend. Standing up for young people, who are bestowed with exceedingly little power in our society, he became a reference point of trust and of respect for kids who felt the most outcast.
The first recorded interview we have with him is from BBC in 1964, when at age 17 he was heading up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men. I'm not kidding. Somehow he got on TV with that, politely demanding an end to the insults and accusations that the world was projecting onto guys who liked to grow their hair.
We forget, here in the days of the LGBT movement demanding transgender bathrooms in McDonald's, that not long ago men could be beaten and arrested for wearing clothing considered inappropriate for their sex.
We forget that people much braver than today's activists had to clear those brambles and build that long road. There was a time when coming out, or being found out, was not a point of pride like it is in so many families today. When he said, "You got your mother in a whirl / she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl," that was actually liberating.
More than anything, David Bowie emanated sex. Not sexy. Not sex appeal. Not sexualization. Not porno. Not sex as a marketing tool. Bowie was about sex, the real thing, expressed boldly and unabashedly and notably, with no regard for gender norms, the ultimate social prison.
Today his early work is a time capsule from the days when sex was for fun, rebellion, and creative expression. He is a reminder that those days in fact existed and that we can find our way to such a place again. What seems to be progress (mostly for the LGBT movement) has not been progress in all ways, or for everyone. Today, society seems to have sexually polarized in three directions: monoculture, hookup culture, and rape culture.
The vast experiment that was queer has been rendered solemn and homely, clad in white gowns and tuxedos without the slightest hint of irony. Marriage, hospital visitation, and death benefits have been sanctified by the Supreme Court not just as a right under equal protection but a rarified fundamental right—as they well should be.
But the party isn't nearly as fun. The culture of repression is so obsessive today that most young people I know have to be blotto before taking off their clothes. Anti-queer abstinence indoctrination is still taught in schools. LGBT activists, having won the Golden Globe of their Supreme Court victory, might turn their attention to that atrocity.
Becoming a pickup artist is now trained like karate, the better to hack the code of our frigid social environment (i.e., so you can get a date). Kids are still made to sign the abstinence pledge and wear purity rings.
Rape is a serious problem, but rape cultists, whose practical definition of sex is rape, present a much more insidious situation, leading young people to wonder if merely having sexual desire makes them a perpetrator or pervert. Today many young men and boys are afraid to make any overture to girls or young women, afraid that they will be misunderstood and classified as rapists.
Many of what are today called helicopter parents—the late Baby Boomers who tripped, boogied, and fucked to many of David Bowie's songs—are appalled at the notion of their young sons and daughters having sex. Many are too terrified to even have an honest conversation with their kids, much less to stand up against puritanical school administrators who still teach abstinence, and whose balls are in the vise of a few fundamentalist Christian parents.
It is my observation that the canonization of homosexual marriage has arrived in a parallel delivery with much else being deemed abnormal, immoral, and dangerous. Queer is now considered okay because you can seal the deal with monogamous marriage.
Today, we need David Bowie more than ever, to remind us that it's okay to be different, and to feel good. It's okay to be horny and frisky and creative all in the same gesture. It's okay to play and to experiment just because you want to, just for fun. It's just fine to be sexy and have that be about sex and not about power. Most of all, it's okay to offend your parents and their version of God or secular morality if that's what it takes for you to be who you are.
It was Bowie who arrived like his fictional Starman and indeed blew our minds—though for most of us that was long ago and far away. He helped open that sacred window to the unknown. Have you left yours open, even just a little, or was it long ago painted over and sealed shut, so you might never smell the fresh air from that garden again?
Here's the thing: sex actually does need advocates. The moral guilt trip today is so thick many people still feel ashamed by the least desire. As a writer, I do my best, but I think my polemics on the subject (while vaguely informative) are not nearly as useful as Bowie's get-it-on rock and roll.
Most of what people—younger and older—now need is permission to feel as weird as they think they are, which is unlikely to be so weird after all. It's just that one can feel strange when exposed to heat and sunshine when you've been locked into a cold, dark room for decades. Maybe it took guts for Bowie to say what he did, and to be who he was, but really, I think for him it was the obvious and only thing to do.
In a sense he took the revolution and made it personal. There was plenty of dancing, so it was a revolution that Emma Goldman would have been down with for sure. I don't know what it will take to get past the calcified hip and smug we are confronted with nearly everywhere today, but there must be something. I think it would help if people relaxed a little about having to convince everyone how supposedly pure they are.
That's going to require taking a risk. It's easier for young people to take that risk, because they have less to lose. Yes, you're being told that that one thing you post to Instagram could end up preventing you from being chairman of the board of some corporation in 30 years. But is that really true, and do you really care?
Well, you still may. You might think you have to protect your priceless image at all costs. But I can tell you that the moment when you decide you don't care is a beautiful one. The moment when you decide that you are who you are whatever anyone might think is bold and astonishing, coming from the inside out. It's as good as your first orgasm, because the two are directly related—they are about giving up self-control long enough to have some fun, to experience yourself as alive in the moment, and to plant the seeds for the next phase of who you're becoming.
Sex makes babies, but it's procreative in every other way as well. When you open up your sexual aperture, you open up your potential, your creative flow, and your desire to live. If we're wondering why so many people today seem like zombies (and why zombie and vampire films are the rage), and why so many people are drugged on suicide-inducing antidepressants, maybe it's because there's so much pressure to be pristine and uptight.
Maybe, as my teacher Joe Trusso is fond of saying, the opposite of depression is expression.
• • •
I was not aware of David Bowie's deeply troubled early home life until I started researching him this week, to write about him for the first time. His life as a child was as messed up as any kid's is today, with what he described alternately as madness and as "emotional and spiritual mutilation."
His chart has the intensity of a serial killer. It speaks of isolation, violation, deception, and an environment where trust was nearly impossible. He was surrounded not just by muggles but by aggressive and toxic ones.
But he was a gentle, graceful spirit. He was observant. He was creative and curious about that fact, and by some miracle he was able to keep that flow going. If we're looking for a possible explanation, I would say that he was well on the way to weaving that thing called soul when he arrived here.
I am not sure if doing this is a choice. There are some people who seem to use these devastating experiences and the lack of contact that they need to become some of society's most important and helpful teachers. Many, many others are hardened and become immune to empathy, passing the cruelty forward.
Judging just from Bowie's chart, he could have gone either way. But I think that, as evidenced by dropping his family name (Jones) at age 17, he was taking over the process of forming his own identity and his own reality. He claimed himself, and he made a life of doing so.
That's something that everyone who actually grows up must do, sooner or later. At a certain point, one must actually stop worrying about what they will think. This is best taught by example, and David Bowie was just exactly role model.
I would add that no matter how many times he morphed his persona, or reinvented or renamed himself (apparently one of his favorite hobbies), he was still the person who he was at the core of his being: Someone who chose to live, to love and to work right until the end of his days.