I was a young teenager from suburban New Jersey when I first discovered David Bowie. I was a conventional kid – followed the rules, did my work, behaved…I didn’t really have an ounce of rebellion in me. But when I listened to his raspy, chameleon-like voice sing lyrics that seemed to speak only to me, I’d become someone else for the length of a song. A girl on the cusp of womanhood who didn’t care what others thought of her, who dared to be different, who could actually hold a tune. Bowie was my rebellion.
“Young Americans,” “Changes,” “Heroes,” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance” – those songs were the anthems of my youth. They gave me something to talk about with the adorable counselor at my sleepaway camp on whom on I had a painful, unrequited crush. They gave me a music vocabulary that I otherwise never would have acquired. Bowie was my gateway drug to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and so many other alternative musicians. He made me feel cool and sophisticated and quirky.
Like anyone who idolizes someone famous, I harbored fantasies that one day Bowie and I would meet. Although my daydreams occasionally ventured into romantic territory, they were mostly chaste. I hung a poster of him on my bedroom wall – his was the face that greeted me every morning with the hint of a Mona Lisa smile.
In a quixotic quest to meet Bowie, I procured myself a fake ID from a bodega in Times Square so that a friend and I could get into New York City’s iconic China Club, one of his rumored Manhattan haunts. It was 1986 and although we probably danced to Bowie once we made it past the bouncers, he wasn’t there. I was disappointed, of course, but far from bereft. He inspired me to live life a little freer that night and, 30 years later, I remember the evening as if it were yesterday.
When I saw Bowie in concert at Giants Stadium during the summer of 1987, a couple of months after high school graduation, I was in heaven. It was the closest I ever got to him. If before it had seemed like we would always be separated by a universe vaster than anything he sang about in “Space Oddity,” suddenly only several thousand people stood between my idol and me. Watching him perform live on stage marked the perfect end to a teenage life that was defined by his music.
I carried Bowie with me into adulthood, loyally buying his new albums, but I’ve always remained steadfastly dedicated to his earlier music because when I listen to it, I’m 16 years old again.
Bowie knew he was dying as he produced his just-released album Blackstar and as I listen to its jazz-infused rhythms this morning, I can’t help but notice to what extent death permeates its lyrics, which abound with references to mortality, yearning and nostalgia. He was clearly saying goodbye.
The last song on Blackstar is “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” A statement of the obvious, perhaps. But for this once-young teenager from suburban New Jersey who’s now a not-so-young mother from suburban New Jersey, David Bowie helped me become me. And today, that feels a lot like everything.