I remember the first time I heard Life on Mars by David Bowie. It changed my life. I had never heard a song like that before. Bowie is wailing. The piano is crashing. The guitar is crying. It’s so beautifully haunting. Very few songs hit me like this one. When I hear it sometimes it’s like being struck like a bell. I hear it and I can feel myself ringing. A little while later I would hear Rock n’ Roll Suicide. As Bowie screams “Oh no love, you’re not alone!” I would be flying down hills of my small hometown on my bike. The summer hot on my back. I was maybe 12. That song was everything I had dreamed of, yearned for. It was life changing. It was life affirming.
I’m from Newfield, New York. You’ve never heard of it. When people ask I say that I’m from Ithaca, New York. Which isn’t entirely a lie. I spent a lot of my life in Ithaca, but I grew up in the small town just outside of Ithaca. I had a class of maybe 54 other kids, give or take. I felt very alone. But Bowie would call me ‘love’ and tell me I wasn’t, so it’d make the days a little better.
I remember being in the car with my father when I first heard Space Oddity. I was young I was obsessed with the narrative. The fact the song could tell a story like that. He told me there was a follow up. I was very sad when I heard Ashes to Ashes.
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low
I ran into his room. I cried out, “Dad! Why?” and he explained the context for the song. How a lot of astronauts turn to drugs after space because nothing on Earth could match that. I still get a little sad when I hear that song.
Because of my obsession with Space Oddity my father gave me a David Bowie cassette. It was Changes, a lot of great songs on that hunk of plastic. It was a prized possession. When I was much younger than I am now, but older than when I got the cassette I gave it to the girl I lost my virginity to. It had Heroes on it and that was ‘our song.’ I was in high school, and in love and I gave it away because I thought that’s what you did for love. Maybe I still do.
I got older and more into Bowie. I heard the lyrics to Young Americans and I realized how that first verse was more or less exactly the story of me losing my virginity.
They pulled in just behind the bridge
He lays her down, he frowns
Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?
He kissed her then and there
She took his ring, took his babies
It took him minutes, took her nowhere
Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything…
What a young little Casanova I was. What a fool I was. Around the time I discovered Young Americans I was beginning to question my sexuality. I think I was 16. I didn’t know how to talk about it or who to talk about it with. I didn’t know any bisexual males that I was aware of. My sister had just come out, but I didn’t want to talk to her and seem like I was trying to steal her thunder. I was alone in my anxiety and my own sexual ambiguity. I was afraid to declare anything. I wrestled with it for nearly two years.
Three years ago when David Bowie turned 69 (nice). I had decided I was done hiding from myself. If David Bowie could be so wonderfully flamboyant and incredible and bisexual and beloved then why the hell couldn’t I?
Three years ago I came out as bisexual. I came out as bisexual in a small lil podunk town who didn’t fully understand who or what I was. They still loved me all the same. But there wasn’t anyone there who could show me the way to claim this part of myself. But that’s what I had Bowie for. And when the younger boys who called me faggot weren’t calling me faggot because of my sexuality, they said it because they didn’t know what else to call me. But it didn’t matter when they did. I was myself.
So come on
We really got a good thing going
(Well) Come on
(Well) Come on
If you think we’re gonna make it
You better hang on to yourself
Coming out was one of the best things I ever did. I felt this weight come off of my shoulders and I felt more genuinely me than I think I ever had before.
Two days later David Bowie died.
In retrospect I find it a little funny. You finally find a bi icon, a Bicon if you will, and then as soon as they give you the courage to truly be yourself, they die. I was devastated. I still am devastated.
I got in contact with my ex and got my David Bowie cassette back. Reclaiming a little bit of what I gave away.
My relationship with David Bowie would continue. Just as one sided as before. The following Halloween I was Aladdin Sane. That was my first Halloween in college. That was also the time I learned a lot of important lessons.
1)Wearing a full suit and face makeup to a dance club is a mistake.
2) When boys and girls tell you they like your costume responding with “Thanks, I did the makeup myself,” is not usually a turn on.
3) When you do finally get over enough of your social anxiety to go onto the floor. And someone decides she’s okay with making out with a man in full face paint, some of that face paint will rub off. You’ll then be able to identify all the men she makes out with after you step away to go to the bathroom. That’ll kinda hurt. Even though you never learned her name.
Two years have passed since that night, and I look back on it with a lot of bemusement. I do a lot of things to try and be more like the people I idolize. I bought a pair of boots because I saw an old promotional picture of Bruce Springsteen where he wore similar ones. French 75’s officially cemented themselves as my favorite cocktail because a book said they were the most similar to the persona of David Bowie.
I didn’t know what I was going to write when I started writing this. I just knew I had to write. The anniversary of David Bowie’s death is today. He would have turned 72 on Tuesday. I’ll never meet Bowie, or tell him how much he meant to me. I’ll never be able to tell him he gave me the courage to be more myself. He gave me the strength to come out as bisexual. He gave me the courage to dress weirder. To be More. More flamboyant. More ostentatious. More grand. To be more myself.
Often times when I’m at work and I get to play music I’ll put on David Bowie and let shuffle handle the rest. Song after song I’ll be delighted.
Maybe this piece is more about me and my relationship with an icon than it is about the icon himself. Maybe that’s narcissistic.
As I’m sitting in my chair writing this, my Changes cassette sits next to me. I’ve set the Bowie discography to shuffle. Dancing out in Space is playing. I miss him.
No-one here can see you
Dancing face to face
No-one here can beat you
Dancing out in space
Some days before work I’ll be stressed. Worried about what the night will bring. And I’ll queue up Bowie’s performance of Heroes from Live Aid. I’ll listen to all the hope he has in his voice. I’ll hear the optimism he’s exuding on that stage. I’ll listen as he dedicates the song to his son. I’ll stand a little straighter. I’ll walk a little more confident into work.
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing, will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day
A few weeks ago I was a little drunk and strung out on anxiety. I stumbled down the front steps of my apartment, lighting my cigarette. Wandering in the cold. I was stressed, I was tired, I felt alone. I put my headphones on, and those first few chords of Rock n Roll Suicide flooded my ears. I exhaled the smoke. I felt a sensation as some of the tension left my shoulders. Bowie was screaming and the music was swelling and I found myself choked up, lightly crying in the dark of a cold Boston night.
Bowie told me that I wasn’t alone. And ever since then, I haven’t been. I’ll always have my headphones, I’ll always have Bowie to keep me company.
Oh no, love, you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself, but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care
Oh no, love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
With Love, You’re Not Alone
Bailey F. Olmstead