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Berlin

A Thank-You Note to Mr. Bowie

Stoop of Paris Bar: “Passerby be modern.”

By coincidence I spent most of the day before David Bowie died in a part of West Berlin whose identity is inextricably linked to him. It started with my arrival at Zoo station—a key location in the 1981 film Christiane F., which Bowie made the soundtrack for and also appeared in as himself—to take a walking tour that, unbeknownst to me, had been cancelled.

At loose ends once I realized the tour wasn’t going to happen, I ducked into the Helmut Newton Foundation across the street from the station and spent an hour or so refreshing my memory on Mr. Newton (Jewish Berliner who fled in the 1930s, killed in a car accident leaving Chateau Marmont in the noughties, fond of photographing naked ladies). At the museum gift shop I admired two of the more lewd postcards, but the prude in me settled on a Newton portrait of David Bowie in a bathrobe sitting on the edge of the bed at Berlin’s Kempinski Hotel. I would send it to my husband, I thought, who is still in California. Bowie is his hero.

Paris Bar

After the museum, I walked the couple blocks to Paris Bar, an establishment on Kanstrasse that’s infamous for hosting Bowie and Iggy Pop during their Berlin years—three years in the late 1970s when Bowie made three albums, including Heroes. It was mostly empty when I arrived, and the waiter didn’t seem to mind that I wandered around taking photographs—undoubtedly not the first person to do so—including of a an eight-person table hidden in an alcove in the back corner and watched over by an enormous portrait of a female British artist whose name I forgot (there’s also what I think is a very small portrait of Bowie over the bar, but on second glance it may have just been a young boy). It’s a spot that would be perfect for a debauched celebration, and I wished very much to have the occasion to book it. Instead I sat contentedly in a banquette at the front, ate a steak, half-read the International New York Times, and people-watched as couples rotated through the seats to either side of me.

My Sunday with the ghost of Bowie was not an uncannily timed homage to a personal hero. While I admire him, the truth is that I can’t legitimately call myself a fan. For that to happen I think you have to discover an artist on your own, most likely when you are young, and I didn’t discover Bowie until my late twenties or early thirties vis-à-vis my husband, for whom, as I mentioned, Bowie is a hero. THE hero.

Through a likely combination of being slightly too young and too suburban, Bowie didn’t come into my childhood consciousness until Let’s Dance, a song that even my husband finds unfortunate. With no other history of Bowie, I just assumed he was another 1980s pop star.

He was, of course, about the farthest thing you could get from that and, at the same time, that. Bowie bent and morphed and transformed a hundred times, shapeshifting to suit his artistry. And for this reason, even if I had been exposed to him, perhaps shepherded into the coolness by some older teen-aged sibling of a friend, I doubt I would have liked him as a kid. I grew up in a household terrified into submission by middle-class WASP norms. Gender bending raging talents weren’t something we knew what to do with. Bowie would have, in all likelihood, scared me.

An aside. When I was in middle school, like everyone else I knew I loved Prince’s Purple Rain. My friend, Michele M., and I used to crank it out of a ghetto blaster on her front lawn as we lathered ourselves with baby oil and laid out in the sun (my family was afraid of a lot of things in the eighties—Jimmy Carter comes to mind—but skin cancer was not yet one of them). Prince was nominated for multiple Grammys that year and I will never forget watching the telecast home alone with my mother because when Prince appeared (in a cape and heeled boots in my memory), she commented, to no one in particular, “what a flaming faggot.”

In fairness to my mother, she didn’t say these words with anything that resembled contempt (and, as it turns out, she has a gay daughter now, so life’s funny that way). It was more like she was trying out a new concept, something she had heard (which, hilariously, was wrong), turning the words over aloud as if trying on a new pair of shoes. After that night I never heard her use the word again, and I only mention it now to illustrate my family’s complete ineptness at absorbing anything that fell outside our normative boundaries.

This morning when I heard about Bowie’s death on Twitter, one of the sweetest tweets I read was from a gay writer, Steve Silberman: “Goodbye, David. You probably saved the lives of millions of gay/trans/odd/”extraterrestrial” kids. RIP”.

Without wanting to sound dramatic, I think my husband was probably one of those odd kids, the kind who, unlike me, wasn’t terrified by Bowie but deeply comforted by his otherness. My husband, exposed to some of the harsher realities of life at a young age, has always been comforted by things that make me uncomfortable—terribly sad movies, for example. These reflections of life as he knows it in art make him feel sane, he tells me. It’s a relief that others see the world like him. And for that, Mr. Bowie, I thank you.

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