By the time I finally got around to organizing my thoughts on David Bowie’s death in some semblance of a blog post, it was Sunday morning, and I was pretty confident that I had missed the in memorium window when The Chicago Tribune published a piece examining the world’s massive mourning for Major Tom.
Then I read Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk’s small remembrance, “Chuck Palahniuk on How David Bowie helped him sell ‘Fight Club’” in Rolling Stone. Palahniuk recounted a night as a struggling author, barely able to afford a basement apartment but treated to hearing Bowie perform “Young Americans” over and over again during a soundcheck for a nearby concert. Flash forward to the days when he’s trying to get Fight Club published — in order to get his competitors out from between him and a publishing agent, he popped $10 in quarters into the jukebox and played “Young Americans” on loop* until they left and he could pitch a book about underground street fighting, commercial terrorism and multiple personality disorder.
*Fans of John Mulaney’s “What’s New, Pussycat” story might see some parallels here. Apparently jukebox trolling was a thing in the 1990s?
I don’t have a story of how David Bowie changed my life, apart from these Bowie Bites that could probably morph into something deeper and more revealing if given enough creative thought:
- “How David Bowie helps me connect emotionally with the Space Race:” I get emotionally gut-punched every time I hear the verse “Ground control to Major Tom / your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong / can you hear me, Major Tom?”
- “How David Bowie made me think Butterfly Boucher would last as a band:” I heard Butterfly Boucher’s version of “Changes” before actually hearing Bowie’s iconic anthem, courtesy of the Shrek 2 soundtrack.
- “How David Bowie made me comfortable with irony:” When Mom got the Best of Bowie album, I was barely 10 years old and very confused at the dichotomy of how one artist could sing a song like “Young Americans” and follow it up with “This Is Not America” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
- “How David Bowie inspired my social persona when going to the cineplex:” “Cat People (Putting Out Fires)” is my getting-ready-to-go-out theme song because of its use in “Inglourious Basterds.” It’s my way of saying that some Nazi ass is going to get kicked. Or that I’m going to the movies.
- “How David Bowie lowered my blood pressure one night:” When I saw the Bowie exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art last winter, I was livid at something that had happened that day. Then I decided the true crime would be to let anger take away from experiencing the music, costumes, notebooks, sheet music, art and props surrounding me.
- “How David Bowie gave me a reason to nag a friend who never finished his David Bowie-themed comic:” One of my best friends started working on a comic series idea called Bowie Man, with the hero taking on a different Bowie persona in each issue as he fought crimes with a sidekick based on Meatloaf. It never got off the ground, but maybe it will now if I keep bugging him about it.
I heard that Bowie had died just two days after I celebrated his birthday by wearing my MCA souvenir earrings.
It seemed ridiculous because Bowie is the immortal Starman, and people like Palahniuk started to write. Except me. I just kept pushing blogging further down my to-do list because I couldn’t get my thoughts straight and had to catch up on American Horror Story: Hotel before the finale.*
*Apart from being true, that detail sets up an important “in joke” this post. Keep reading and you’ll get it.
I did read, however. The overwhelming statement that came from every article, obituary and photo slideshow was that Bowie was fully committed to being fluid. He loved being weird, making everyone want to be weird, then changing it up into a different kind of weird that people would weirdly want just as much.
Essentially, Bowie was — is — a god to a weirdo writer like me.
As an artist, musician, actor and writer, Bowie blended all of his talents to build upon the masterpieces he created. He write about Major Tom in “Space Oddity” and save an Outlook calendar alert for years later that reminded him to allude to the astronaut in “Ashes to Ashes” — it just happened. That’s what happens when a foundation is that strong. It’s easy to build and build and build.
I’ve got a pretty strong writing foundation. Recreational writing in high school turned into a journalism degree turned into a few years of reporting and editing experience turned into a corporate gig that tests my skills as much as my patience some days. Like Bowie, what helped strengthen each layer has been severe commitment.
But unlike Bowie, who became the characters and personas he sang about — including Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the phenomenal amount of death and afterlife imagery in his last album, Blackstar — I’ve had a harder time balancing fluidity and commitment. For Bowie, it was OK to change, but it wouldn’t have worked if he had weakly gone dancing (in the street) between identities.
And yet that’s what I do when I finally sit down to build on the wing of my foundation designated for fiction writing. I jump between projects or abandon them in favor of a Netflix binge. What would have happened if Bowie had decided “Nah, I’m not going to write ‘Life on Mars’ today. I rather watch another episode of American Horror Story.”*
*Which would totally be a Dr. Who-style paradox because Jessica Lange’s character sings “Life on Mars” in the fourth season. Elaborate inside joke complete.
So here’s my “How David Bowie saved my fiction writing” story starts, because it hasn’t ended yet. Instead of wrestling a number of how-weird-can-you-get writing projects in an effort to decide which one is just the right amount of desirable weirdness, I’m going to commit to one and wear it for a while. This quarter-year might be dedicated to the red and blue lightening bolt of a suspense novel. Maybe next will be the geometric sculpted jumpsuit of a screenplay about a couple that survives the zombie apocalypse but not their marriage. No matter what project I find myself under pressure to write, I’m going to make sure I do it Bowie style: without reservation and with total commitment.
Because if there’s one thing we learned from Bowie, it’s to commit fully to a persona or goal, even if it’s playing “Young Americans” on loop to make it possible to sell a veiled criticism of machismo to a publishing agent who apparently didn’t care that “Young Americans” was presumably the only song on the bar’s jukebox. Or working on a novel that will sell the world as much as a book called Fight Club or a man called Major Tom.
Can you hear me, Major Tom?