by Jonathan Ammons
Forgive us, this post has nothing to do with food.
I was a weird kid when I was 16. I was a little bit goth, I wore all black and a black trench coat all the time. I didn’t have many friends, and I was really into Industrial music and whatnot, which placed me as the weirdo in a small private Christian school.
I’d been in a psych ward by 16. I was seeing a therapist regularly. Everyone thought there was something wrong with me. I was also really bad at school, which is how I found myself as a junior in a freshman math class.
Having heard I was into electronic music and composed/produced it in my spare time, my math teacher, Dan Kellem, placed the CD “Earthling” by David Bowie on my desk one morning. “This might be my all-time favorite album,” he told me. “And you’ll like it, it’s done with a guy from Nine Inch Nails.”
As I was climbing into the car after school, my mom asked what the album was, and I said David Bowie. “Oh, he was always a weird one,” she said. I put the disc in and the screeching, driving beat of “Dead Man Walking” came on the speakers, startling both me and my mother.
David Bowie’s name was familiar to me. After all, I’d seen Labyrinth, I’d surely heard dozens of his tunes (I knew all the words from Nirvana’s cover of “Man Who Sold the World”), but this song, this album, would be my first time connecting the legend of Bowie with his voice, with his words.
I listen to those words this morning, Now I’m gone, gone, gone, like I’m dancing on angels, and I’m gone, through the crack in the past, like a dead man walking. It’s a little hard not to get choked up.
Because, you see, that wasn’t just an introduction to Bowie, that was literally my teacher saying to me, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” It felt like a rite of passage of some sort. It isn’t hard to say, that simple act of kindness changed my life and the way I saw the world.
“Isn’t he just everything you want to be?” he asked.
It was David Bowie who made us weird kids feel okay, but more than just okay, he made us realize we were the cool kids. The punks, flunkies, queers, and failures: we were the odd balls, we were the ones with the crazy stories to tell. We were the ones who were destined for good things. Bowie taught me to be kind to the gay kids, because they were the least understood, but the ones who understood the stark contrasts between love and cruelty more than any of us. When my roommate, years later in college, came out of the closet to me, I didn’t even bat an eye. It was Bowie who taught me it is we who define what we are, not the society around us.
Bowie taught me that our limitations are often only as small as our imaginations. And I’m gone gone gone, Now I’m older than movies. Let me dance away, Now I’m wiser than dreams. Let me fly fly fly, While I’m touching tomorrow, And I know who’s there When silhouettes fall.
I was in my teacher Tom Willett’s office waiting for him one day when I was in Music School in Martha’s Vineyard, flipping through a coffee table book of David Bowie through the years. I was just to the Thin White Duke era when Tom came in and looked over my shoulder.
“Isn’t he just everything you want to be?” he asked.
And I sat there in my torn up leather pants with bright red fishnets underneath, swoopy emo hair died bright red, thick black eye shadow… “Yes, he is.” I said.
David Bowie started his career as what is arguably the lowest of the lows in the entertainment spectrum. He was a mime. His biography, Strange Fascination, describes him in his early career to be the weird kid in the class, the overly hyped fan boy. He was obsessed with the Velvet Underground to the point where Lou Reed even had a restraining order put on him because he claimed he was being stalked. He was the outcast in the music world who wrote songs about outer space that didn’t make any sense. That is until he had a hit. David Bowie would later produce two Lou Reed records, including the pinnacle rock and roll tune “Walk On the Wild Side.” He produced two of Iggy Pop’s true masterpiece records in one single recording session. His work with my idol, Brian Eno, generated what might be three of the most inspired albums of all time, Low, Lodger, and Heroes. But beyond any of his work, it was he himself that truly made it all. A god among men, if there ever was one; he always made himself to seem larger than life. He reinvented himself constantly, changing his entire look, his entire persona. From a punk drag queen to an alien, and from the three piece suit wearing duke to the distinguished old man on stage with Arcade Fire, he pulled it all off with grace and style.
“There is no failure, only evolution,” he once told Rolling Stone. “Every snake must shed its skin.”
I’ve always wondered why we get so emotional when major icons like Bowie die. And I’ve grown to believe that it is simply because we just hope they knew what they meant to us. It must be hard, in the glare of the spotlight, to see anything other than people’s criticisms. When I put on “Dead Man Walking” this morning, as soon as I woke up, I thought, did he know? Before he passed, did he know? Did he have any idea what he meant to us? Did he know that he gave strength to millions of rejects, fuck ups, freaks, geeks, and losers? Did he know that he showed us that just because you were the odd man out, that you could still be… that that made you cool?
I truly hope so.